The government of the Northwest Territories
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The government of the Northwest Territories now plans to airlift nearly 600,000 litres of diesel fuel.
Paulatuk, Kugluktuk and Cambridge Bay were unable to receive shipments of food, fuel and lumber

Authorities in Canada's Arctic north are scrambling to transport critical supplies to three isolated communities after the early arrival of sea ice prevented delivery barges from reaching in the region.

Paulatuk, Kugluktuk and Cambridge Bay, which have a combined population of nearly 3,000 people, have been unable to receive shipments of food, fuel and lumber after ice moving from the high Arctic sealed off the Amundsen Gulf.

The government of the Northwest Territories now plans to airlift nearly 600,000 litres of diesel fuel to ensure residents have sufficient reserves to weather the bitterly cold winters. The operation is expected to involved 50 to 60 flights.

"This is absolute ridiculous," said Joh Holland, a municipal representative from Paulatuk. "We've got people waiting for food. We've got hunters waiting for vehicles."

Crucial water treatment supplies and municipal vehicles - including a new bus - are also among the stranded items. Residents are already making payments on vehicles that likely won't arrive until next year while some small businesses awaiting buildings supplies expressed fears they might not survive without the deliveries.

The ice has been described by officials as "extreme" and even the Canadian coast guard's largest icebreaker in the region - the Louis St Laurent - was unable to help break open a channel for the barges. The government has rejected attempting to move the barge without an escort ship.

"The ice can be like the pinchers of a giant pair of pliers," assistant deputy minister John Vandenberg in the department of infrastructure, told the CBC. "You don't survive that."

Northern communities in the Arctic are sparsely populated and few have deep water ports, so container ships take advantage of summer months (when the Amundsen Gulf is largely ice-free), anchoring in deep water and making deliveries with barges.

"The sea lift is critical for people here," said Bill Lyall, a Cambridge Bay resident and Order of Canada recipient. "When it doesn't come in, people can expect to pay double."

In Paulatuk, the shelves of the grocery store are quickly becoming bare as nonperishable items like flour quickly disappear.

The stranded shipment was scheduled to be one of the last of the summer - but Holland said the territorial government, which recently took over the barge service, kept delaying the shipment.

"I just don't understand why couldn't bring barge in earlier in the season. They did it for other communities in the western Arctic - why not us? We want answers."