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

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

Just Posted

Dan Law is Tofino’s new mayor. (Westerly file photo)
Dan Law elected mayor of Tofino

Cathy Thicke and Jacky Challenger earn council seats.

District of Tofino election official Jayson Towers and election deputy chief Cass Spence welcome Tofitians to the polls. (Nora O’Malley photo)
TOFINO BY-ELECTION 2021: General voting day is today

Polls are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Tofino Community Hall

Nelly and Jens Heyduck hold samples of their Ahoy Bags made from discarded sails. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Ucluelet’s Ahoy Bags up for two Small Business BC Awards

German-Canadian wife and husband team transform old sails into one-of-a-kind beach bags

The Independent Investigations Office of BC is investigating the shooting of a Tla-o-qui-aht man by Tofino RCMP in Opitsaht on Feb. 27. (Black Press Media file photo)
‘Police have killed more TFN members than COVID has,’ First Nation demands transparency in Tofino RCMP shooting investigation

Julian Jones, a 28 year-old Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation man was shot and killed by police on Feb. 27.

Blue Crush Concierge co-owners Ashley Wells and Erika Greenland, pictured here following COVID-19 social distancing alongside their dogs Hank and Lady Bird, are up for two SBBC awards. (Photo courtesy of Erika Greenland)
Three Tofino companies up for Small Business BC Awards

Tofino Kombucha, Blue Crush Concierge and Surf Sister all received nomination honours.

The James C Richardson Pipe Band marches in a Remembrance Day parade on Nov. 11, 2019 in Chilliwack. Wednesday, March 10 is International Bagpipe Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of March 7 to 13

International Bagpipe Day, Wash Your Nose Day and Kidney Day are all coming up this week

Victoria man Brett Andersen is asking for people’s help to secure him one of eight free tickets to the moon. (Screenshot/@brettandersen Instagram)
Victoria man wants your help securing a free ticket to the moon

Japanese billionaire offering eight people a trip to the moon

The Conservation Officers Service is warning aquarium users after invasive and potentially destructive mussels were found in moss balls from a pet store. (BC Conservation Officers Service/Facebook)
Aquarium users in B.C. warned after invasive mussels found at pet store

Conservation officers were told the mussels were found in a moss ball from a Terrace pet store.

Hockey hall-of-fame legend Wayne Gretzky, right, watches the casket of his father, Walter Gretzky, as it is carried from the church during a funeral service in Brantford, Ont., Saturday, March 6, 2021. HE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Walter Gretzky remembered as a man with a ‘heart of gold’ at funeral

The famous hockey father died Thursday at age 82 after battling Parkinson’s disease

Donald Alan Sweet was once an all star CFL kicker who played for the Montreal Alouettes and Montreal Concordes over a 13-year career. Photo courtesy of Mission RCMP.
Ex-B.C. teacher who was CFL kicker charged with assault, sexual crimes against former students

Donald Sweet taught in Mission School District for 10 years, investigators seek further witnesses

(Black Press Media files)
Medicine gardens help Victoria’s Indigenous kids in care stay culturally connected

Traditional plants brought to the homes of Indigenous kids amid the COVID-19 pandemic

During a press event on March 6, Const. Alex Berube, media relations officer for the West Shore RCMP, addressed a deadly shooting that occurred in Metchosin the night before. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)
VIDEO: One man shot dead in ‘targeted incident’ in Metchosin

Highway 14 reopens following multi-hour closure for investigation

Personal protective equipment is seen in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at St. Paul’s hospital in downtown Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
$16.9 million invested to improve worker safety, strengthen B.C.’s food supply chain

Money to be used for social distancing, personal protective equipment, cleaning, and air circulation

Most Read