Winter is coming… and the NRC is getting ready to take advantage of it

- Ottawa, Ontario

An over-ice segment of the former winter road linking Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk – automobile for scale. (Photo: NRC)

It's no secret that Canada is known for its harsh winters, heavy snowfalls and crazy driving conditions. In fact, we pride ourselves on our resiliency, our expert manoeuvering of icy roads and our ability to cope until that groundhog pops its head up in the springtime to signal that the end of winter weather is approaching.

What's less commonly known, especially in southern parts of the country, is how important our winter roads–roads that only exist during the winter–are for northern communities. These communities rely heavily on these networks as their only way of transporting bulk supplies, such as fuel and construction materials. The short operational lifespans of these roads are anywhere between a few weeks and a few months a year–making it imperative that they are used to their full potential. Outside this lifespan, the communities are mostly isolated from each other and from the rest of Canada. Air transportation is available in some places, but it is very expensive and cannot handle bulk goods. It's also important to note that there are no shopping centres in these parts of the world.

Reinforcing an ice cover used for transportation.

It should come as no surprise that these winter roads are highly vulnerable to a warming climate. Since they are made up of segments that run not only over land but also over floating ice expanses, such as frozen rivers and lakes, these require an ice thickness that is safe enough for the intended traffic. They rely on cold temperatures. For this reason, over-ice segments are typically weak links. Also, the risk of breakthroughs is a very necessary and serious consideration.

The effects of climate change on the winter road networks have been the most recognized concern in the northern remote communities and resource sites throughout the Canadian North. (Dr. Yukari H. Hori, U. of Toronto)

The National Research Council of Canada's (NRC) Ocean, Coastal and River Engineering Research Centre has a project that is tackling this problem. The research team has been investigating options for reinforcing ice covers on winter roads with engineered materials. Incorporating the appropriate materials inside the ice would ideally help resist the extensional stresses at the bottom of the ice cover. The aim is two-fold: 1) to increase the roads' abilities to support a load, and 2) to resist breakthroughs (even if the ice does fracture).

Small-scale beam testing.

Driving on thin ice

This project is being carried out in collaboration with the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston, Transport Canada's (TC) Northern Transportation Adaptation Initiative, Infrastructure Canada’s (INFC) Climate-Resilient Buildings and Core Public Infrastructure, and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada's (CIRNAC) First Nation Adapt. The NRC, TC, INFC and CIRNAC are funding this R&D work, while RMC is performing complementary testing under the NRC's guidance. The research began back in fall 2018 and is predicted to wrap up in the spring of 2021, with its final phase beginning in fall 2020. The work for the project has taken place in both the NRC's Ottawa and St. John's cold room facilities.

Transport Canada's Northern Transportation Adaptation Initiative seeks to increase the capacity of northerners to adapt their transportation systems to climate change. This kind of innovation could help to reduce the vulnerability of over-ice segments to higher temperatures and increasing climate variability, which in turn, would support the economic and social well-being of the remote northern communities that rely on winter roads. (Jenna Craig, Senior Policy Analyst, Northern Transportation Adaptation Initiative, Transport Canada)

Without reinforcement

Failure of a 3 metres large ice plate without reinforcement – the water was removed from the ice tank.

What does this work consist of? First, the NRC explored reinforcement using small rectangular ice beams. Some were reinforced, others were not, which allowed researchers to gain insights on the difference in breaking behaviour upon loading. Using these tests as guidance, large slabs of ice were then produced, with and without reinforcement. Information on deflection in response to loading is generated, which is used to validate a numerical model. This modelling, in turn, will help guide deployment into a natural ice cover, taking into account the nature of the engineered material used for reinforcement.

The project will address all aspects of the incorporated material in order to ensure it's a plausible option for the northern communities, while considering costs, availability, mechanical properties, ease of use and ecological suitability.

With reinforcement

Failure of an ice plate with reinforcement – note: there is no breakthrough!

Just the tip of the iceberg

First and foremost, the outcomes of this project will provide improvements on the effectiveness of winter roads, increasing the operational lifespan on something so necessary for northern communities. The technologies being investigated can also be applied to other geographic locations with similar climates and needs as those of Northern Canada. Advancing research on the reinforcement of winter roads can open opportunities for collaborations outside the country as well. As something unknown to be a problem to most Canadians, this project will help to shine a light on how our northern residents live their everyday lives. We often take for granted that our transportation systems will be operational regardless of the climate, while this is not the reality for many rural and remote communities. The awareness and ensuing research surrounding these issues for the northern communities can in turn create stronger relationships between them and other communities, as well as the rest of the country.

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