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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Comments are closed

Just Posted

Small group of volunteers clean up Campbell River beach

Other events held in Nanaimo, Comox, Powell River and Victoria

Two Campbell River artists take residency at Walter Morgan Studio

Writer Libby King and sculptor Orland Hansen to use studio space this summer

Inside the undefined world of a Rainbow Family gathering in B.C.

In a remote forest, on North Vancouver Island, music, dance, sacred fires and full moon celebrations have been underway since a couple of weeks to mark the annual gathering of the controversial Rainbow Family of Living Light

RCMP seek man facing sexual assault charges

Police believe he may be living on central Vancouver Island but also has a history in the Cariboo region

Campbell River restaurant to be converted into housing for people experiencing homelessness

BC Housing buys popular eatery for $985,000 to serve as bridge housing

The pandemic is widening Canada’s workplace gender gap

Gender pay gap is incentivizing fathers to work while mothers watch children, a new B.C. study has found

Ex-Okanagan Mountie forfeits 20 days’ pay after sexual misconduct review

A former Vernon RCMP constable made sexual comments, grabbed genitals of male officer in two incidents 10 years ago

Mirror business directory and map

If you’d like to be added to the list, shoot us an email

Man found dead on Okanagan trail identified as Hollywood actor

GoFundMe campaign launched for man found dead at summit of Spion Kop

3 people dead in Prince George motel fire

Fire personnel believe the blaze was suspicious although investigation in early stages

B.C. sets terms to review police, mental health, race relations

MLAs to recommend Police Act changes by May 2021

Feds announce $8.3M to deal with ‘ghost’ fishing gear in B.C. waters

Ghost gear accounts for up to 70 per cent of all macro-plastics in the ocean by weight

Almost 99% less land in B.C. burned this year compared to 2018

2018 was the worst year on record for wildfires

Most Read