North·Q&A

Tlicho winter road-builders face 'challenges' this year, say N.W.T. officials

The N.W.T.’s Tlicho winter road system is typically one of the last to get built every winter, and this year is no different. But with winter temperatures on the rise, what goes on behind the scenes has changed substantially over the years.

Overflow, impact of forest fires making for difficult ice-building conditions

In the N.W.T., the Tlicho winter road system that serves the communities of Wekweeti, Whati and Gameti is typically one of the last to get built every winter, and this year is no different. But with winter temperatures on the rise, what goes on behind the scenes has changed substantially over the years.

The winter road to Whati, N.W.T., in January 2015. (Tlicho Government)

Michael Conway, the Department of Transportation's regional superintendent for the North Slave region, sat down with The Trailbreaker's Loren McGinnis to talk about the winter road system.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Winters are getting warmer in the N.W.T.; how do you still manage to get the road built?

The winter has been unseasonably warm. If you're looking to have an ideal winter road construction, it's nice to get the cold weather near the end of November and stay in that -25 C to -35 C range all the way through December, get your snow at the end, and you're good to go.

But this year it hasn't been that way, and we're certainly facing a lot of challenges on the Tlicho winter road, specifically on the first lake, which is a major lake — Marion. We've had very thin ice compared to what we would normally have. They guys are working really hard. They're out there trying to do their best, but you need the ice to support the equipment and we're just not getting that right now.

'If conditions continue the way they are, ideally we would look at, and we have been looking at, all-season roads,' said Michael Conway, with the Department of Transportation. (LinkedIn)

How has the technology to build winter roads changed over the years?

Twenty-five, 30 years ago they would fire up a bulldozer and drive it across, and a plow truck would follow. There'd be lots of ice to support the equipment and you'd be across a lake fairly quickly. Nowadays we're just getting very little ice compared to what we did 25 years ago and we've had to do a lot of changes with respect to equipment that we use.

All the equipment we're using now is much lighter. We use technologies like ground penetrating radar, which is a machine that tells us exactly what the ice thickness is below. On certain areas, like winter crossings, we use spray ice technology where we spray huge volumes of water up into the air and it lands on the ice and helps us to build ice. In an area like the Tlicho, though, where you've got 400 kilometres of winter roads, and half of that is lakes, that type of technology we can't necessarily use for long periods. That's what we've been doing to try to keep the season at least as long as it was before.

This region experienced some heavy forest fires in recent years.  What impact will that have this year and the years to come on the road system?

The forest fires are something that do affect the winter roads and it's very hard to predict. Two years ago we had the major fire, and it certainly burned along the Whati winter road alignment up toward Gameti, and what we found when we went out to construct the road was that a lot of the burnt wood had fallen across the winter road. So before we could even get going on it, we had to get crews out there to cut up the wood and move it to the side so we could get our equipment through. This year, in the same area, a lot of the trees are overladen with snow and ones that didn't fall last year have fallen. So again we're out there trying to clear our portages and get the wood off them.

When you have a really hot fire you'll also get some melting in the permafrost. And that water does tend to go from place to place and you don't know where it's going to come up. So on occasion what you'll get is an overflow on a portage — which is basically water coming across the road — it can be six inches deep or deeper, and then the crews have to work on trying to clear that or get it to freeze and it just makes it more difficult to keep your road in a good driving condition.

When do you expect the road to open this year?

We don't have a good number at this point. The [ice road builders] are running into a lot of overflow conditions — that's where you'll have water on top of the ice, and then snow on top of that — so it makes it pretty difficult. And right now there's areas on Marion Lake where we have six inches of water under 10 inches of snow, and then your ice cover below that. That's very difficult to work in. Snow cover acts as an insulating blanket, so having a lot of snow on top of your ice doesn't allow for proper growth.

Where do you see this road system in 10 to 15 years?

If conditions continue the way they are, ideally we would look at, and we have been looking at, all-season roads. The way to guarantee resupply to the communities is to ensure that we have a road system that we can use 12 months a year. All-season roads are something that have been studied in the Tlicho area. There's a steering committee made up of the chiefs and the ministers and we've got a working group where the Tlicho government and the Government of the Northwest Territories have been working together on a project description report, that at some point may be put forward to the Wek'eezhii Land and Water Board to permit us to build a road to Whati.

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