Wood pulp, steel cables: Scientists study how to make ice roads last longer

There are at least 10,000 kilometres of Canadian roads that depend on freezing temperatures

The road should have been frozen solid, but it was anything but.

When drivers tried to travel the Mackenzie Valley winter road in the Northwest Territories last March, it was an unpassable highway of muck well before its usual closure date. Four communities were left without vehicle access.

That’s what Paul Barrette — using everything from steel cables to wood pulp — is working to prevent.

“It’s the only time of the year, those two or three months, when northern communities can resupply their needs in fuel, construction material and other bulk goods,” said Barrette, who leads a National Research Council team that is developing ways to keep winter and ice roads passable in a warming climate.

“What we’re looking at is to ensure those roads remain operational throughout these warm winters.”

Across Canada, there are at least 10,000 kilometres of roads that depend on freezing temperatures. Most are in Ontario, but they exist in four provinces and two territories.

For dozens of isolated communities, they are the only way in and out that doesn’t depend on a boat or plane. They are a lifeline for many resource projects.

Improved construction methods have slightly lengthened openings for most winter and ice roads.

But the number of days with freezing temperatures is shrinking across the North. Yukon and the Northwest Territories have already warmed 1.5 degrees Celsius, nearly three times the global average.

ALSO READ: Yukon government pulls plug on engineered ice bridge to West Dawson

A study of the winter road that leads from Yellowknife to the diamond mines of the Central Arctic predicts it will be unable to carry any heavy loads by the end of the century.

“If such a projection were to become reality, the (Tibbett-Contwoyto Road) and other winter roads in the region would no longer be viable to support the natural resource industry in northern Canada,” the study says.

Barrette said the problem is often the few hundred metres it takes to cross a river or a lake.

“The weakest link often happens to be over ice. When that happens, the road remains closed a whole winter so the community remains stranded a full year.”

Ice is tricky. It’s not as rigid as it seems and slowly deforms under a load.

“It creeps,” said Barrette. ”Say you park your vehicle on the ice. If you leave it there two or three hours, the vehicle may break through.”

Barrette and his colleagues are looking for ways to stiffen the ice and stop the creep.

In the past, operators have dropped logs onto the road and frozen them into the ice. But felling trees over the same spot year after year creates environmental issues. Besides, there are no trees further north in the tundra.

Barrette is looking to other materials. “Wood pulp is a possibility.”

Mixing wood pulp into ice hardens it. The blend was used during the Second World War to create an experimental aircraft carrier.

Laying steel cables into the ice is another possibility.

Most recently, Barrette has experimented with what are called “geotextiles” — in this case, a sheet of polypropylene mesh frozen into the road.

“They’ve got to be light enough, they have to be cheap enough, to be brought over on site,” said Barrette.

They also have to be environmentally sound. And they have to work. Barrette said none of the methods have yet been tested in the field.

“We’re actually studying this now,” he said. ”We’re trying to make this work.”

Barrette expects to have something he can field-test within a year, and says there is some urgency to help ice resist a warmer climate.

“Those on-ice segments are more sensitive to warm temperatures,” Barrette said.

“There is a risk of breakthroughs. Sometimes, the water’s deep.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Generous community support flows in for local student diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma

A ‘hair drive’ fundraiser was held recently by the cosmetology class at the school

Farm Credit Canada Women in Ag Summit coming soon

The closest event to Stettler is slated to run in Edmonton Dec. 5th

Stettler’s Parent Link faces uncertain future with announcement of budget cuts

Regular activities being planned with the onset of the Christmas season

A donation from the Sandra Schmirler Foundation will benefit the Stettler Health Services Foundation

Funds will purchase a vital signs monitor for the Panda warmer at the Stettler Hospital

Light Up the Night coming to Stettler Town and Country Museum

First annual gingerbread house contest added to event

VIDEO: ‘Climate emergency’ is Oxford’s 2019 Word of the Year

Other words on the shortlist included ‘extinction,’ ‘climate denial’ and ‘eco-anxiety’

RCMP find burned out vehicles near Pigeon Lake

Wetaskiwin RCMP Recovered Numerous Stolen Vehicles in Pigeon Lake Area

Millet gas station robbed, worker bear sprayed

Wetaskiwin RCMP Investigate Armed Robbery, Seek information and ID Suspect

Environmental group’s lawsuit seeks to quash ‘anti-Alberta’ inquiry

UCP launched inquiry into where Canadian environmental charities get their funding

Federal laws at heart of West’s anger up for debate, as Liberals begin outreach

Vancouver mayor to Trudeau’s western critics: ‘Get over yourselves’

Snowboard pioneer Jake Burton Carpenter dies at 65

He was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011

Teen developed ‘popcorn lung’ due to vaping: Ontario doctors

Boy went from being in perfect health to being on life support after just five months

Woman calls 911 to say she was late for train, asks Ontario police for ‘emergency ride’

Peel Regional Police received more than 180,000 improper calls so far this year

Infants more vulnerable to measles than previously thought: Canadian study

Babies typically don’t receive the measles vaccine until they are 12 months old

Most Read