Thunder Bay

Permanent infrastructure needed as climate threatens winter roads, coordinators say

People who work on the winter road network in northwestern Ontario say it’s time to start looking at more permanent infrastructure, as warmer temperatures put the long-term viability of the roads at risk.

Matawa environmental technologist says it's time to look at bridging some crossings

Changing temperatures are creating shorter ice road seasons, which could impact the communities that depend on them. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

People who work on the winter road network in northwestern Ontario say it's time to start looking at more permanent infrastructure, as warmer temperatures put the long-term viability of the winter road network at risk.

Twelve winter roads in northern Ontario faced closures last week, according to an update published Friday by the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, though at least one of those was due to pandemic-related restrictions, according to Lindsey Jupp, an environmental technologist with Matawa First Nations Management.

In Webequie, a grader cleaning up after a snowstorm got stuck in a soft section of road on Saturday, as temperatures rose above zero, said Terry Spence, the community's winter road coordinator. 

Crews waited at least 30 hours for a second grader to come and help pull it out. 

"When the grader wanted to turn, apparently that area was not even frozen," Spence said.

Road could close a week to 10 days earlier than last year

"It's been difficult or challenging due to the changing climate."

The road is back open now he said. 

Early in the year, a groomer got stuck at a creek crossing about 78 kilometres from the community, he added.

Last year, the winter road to Webequie was open to light traffic until mid-April, Spence said. 

But this year, it could close in a week to 10 days if the temperatures stay as forecasted.

"So hopefully, we will get those semi trucks hauling in those regular materials that need to be shipped up by road," he said.

"Hopefully people can do their part and ask or pray for cold weather," he added. "That would be great." 

Pandemic challenges

Webequie was one of four communities on the Matawa 808 road network that faced closures last week, Jupp told CBC.

One of those roads, to Nibinamik, is closed due to a lockdown triggered by a series of positive COVID-19 test results in the community, she said, adding that Matawa was able to secure extra funding from Indigenous Services Canada to send crews in to help maintain the shared portion of the roadway.

However, Eabametoong and Neskantaga both closed their roads temporarily due to problems caused by the weather, Jupp said, notably rain in Pickle Lake and Eabametoong and wet snow around Neskantaga.

That heavy, wet snow was causing one of Neskantaga's vehicles to overheat, she said.

"We need to start thinking about putting in more permanent structures at these crossings," Jupp said, "whether it's a culvert, a Lessard bridge or some kind of small span bridge, and then also considering larger crossing bridges that need more design engineering and are a lot costlier."

That infrastructure would help reduce the time, and resources spent on the winter roads, lengthen the season, improve safety and even be better for the environment, she added.

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