From Ice Roads to Airships – The Future of Goods Transport in Northern Canada

Northern Canada depends on a vast network of ice roads for the transportation of goods. As a result of global warming, increasingly, Canada’s ice road network is not meeting the needs of residents and businesses of Northern Canada. After detailing the problems with Canada’s reliance on ice roads, this paper explores several courses of action. Helium-filled balloons, also called airships, offer the best transportation alternative to ice roads for most of Northern Canada.

Canada’s Ice Roads

Northern communities in Canada depend on ice roads. Ice roads are used to deliver food, fuel and other supplies to northern communities (Prentice, Barry, Winograd, Phillips, & Harrison, 2003). For many northern communities, truck transport is only possible on ice roads (Hassol, 2004). This is because during the summer time, thawing permafrost makes truck transport on dirt roads impossible (Grant, 1986).

Ice roads are also vital for economic activity in the north. Diamond mines in the Northwest Territories rely on ice roads for the shipment of fuel, supplies and equipment. Some of the equipment used in diamond mining is very heavy and is very expensive to ship by air (Younglai, 2006).  Northern forestry and petroleum and natural gas industries also rely on ice roads (Hassol, 2004, p. 17).

Ice roads are used in every Canadian province and territory, except Nova Scotia and PEI (Adam, 1978). Manitoba is perhaps the most dependent on ice roads (Grant, 1986). Every winter, the Manitoba Government spends about $5.5 million building about 2300 kilometres of ice roads (Prentice et al., 2003). These roads serve about 30,000 people; most of these people are Aboriginal (Abdul-Hay, Harrison, Turriff, & van Rosmalen 2003). The population in areas served by ice roads in Manitoba is expected to double in the next twenty years (Abdul-Hay et al. 2003). Figure 1 shows what can happen when ice is not thick enough on ice roads.

Figure 1 Mackenzie River Ice Crossing near Fort Providence, NWT, Jan. 12, 2000. Source: Weatherstone.

There are three types of ice roads: solid ice roads, aggregate ice roads, and winter roads on ice. Ice bridges are sometimes necessary for solid and aggregate ice roads (Adam, 1978).

Solid ice roads are constructed by applying liquid water and allowing it to freeze. Prior to the application of water, a level roadway is created, using snow to fill depressions. Tanker trucks transport water from nearby rivers and lakes and evenly spray successive layers of water. Each layer is allowed to freeze before the next layer of water is applied. These roads require large volumes of water—over one million litres of water per kilometre (Adam, 1978).

Aggregate ice roads are constructed by chipping chunks of ice out of frozen lakes and rivers or from the sea and transporting the ice to the roadway. Of all three types of ice road, these are the least common and the most expensive (Adam, 1978).

Where solid and aggregate ice roads must cross unfrozen streams, ice bridges are built (Adam 1978). Ice bridges are built by piling snow up in a stream. The stream carves out a channel under the piled up snow and the snow becomes an arch of ice crossing the stream (Prentice et al., 2003, p. 44).

Winter roads on ice are the most common type of ice road. These are simply roadways along frozen lakes and rivers. They are prepared by clearing the snow from the surface of a frozen water body. This allows the ice to thicken more quickly. The ice must be at least twenty-five centimetres thick prior to construction so that snow-clearing equipment can be operated safely on the ice. The cleared snow is banked on the sides of the road. The weight of the snow banks depresses the ice so travel is restricted to the centre of the road (Adam, 1978).

The bearing load of a winter road on ice is a function of the thickness of the ice. An equation is used to calculate safe bearing loads for variable ice thickness (Gold, 1960 cited in Adam, 1978). The equation is P = Ah2 where P is the load in kilograms, h is the ice thickness in centimetres and A is a constant (usually 3.52) (Adam, 1978). For a 60,000-kilogram load, the ice must be at least 70 centimetres thick. With recent warm winters, even when lakes have frozen over, the ice is often not thick enough to support heavy trucks (Blais, 2006).

Speed limits are very important on ice roads over lakes. The movement of vehicles along the ice causes wave action in the unfrozen water below the ice. If the waves are strong enough, this can lead to fracturing of the ice surface with disastrous results. Generally, large trucks cannot travel faster than 19 kilometres per hour across frozen lakes (Grant, 1986).

Climate Change: Transportation Crisis in the North

Northern Canadians are already experiencing problems with ice roads as a result of warm winters. During recent winters, ice roads have opened later in the season and closed earlier. Northern communities have experienced shortages of food and fuel as a result (CCIAP, 2004). In 1998, the Manitoba Government was forced to spend almost $15 million air lifting supplies in to northern communities that were isolated as a result of the warm weather (CBC News, 2002). The province air delivered over ten million litres of fuel to twelve Northern Manitoba communities (Abdul-Hay et al., 2003). To help ease the situation in 2006, Prince Albert-based Transwest Air shipped freight free of charge to northern communities cut off due to the lack of ice roads. The airline delivered 8000 litres of fuel to the towns of Wollaston and Fond-du-Lac in Saskatchewan free of charge. Still, people desperate for supplies have opted to travel along thin ice roads, despite warnings from officials that the ice was not thick enough. In the last few years, two vehicles have gone through thin ice as a result (Blais, 2006).

Industrial activity in the north has also been set back as a result of the lack of ice roads. During this past winter, De Beers diamond mines in the Northwest Territories only received 600 of 2200 expected truckloads. This has delayed construction of the mines. And in Nunavut, the Jericho Diamond Mine only received about sixty percent of its anticipated deliveries this past winter due to thin ice. Operations were curtailed because the company had to conserve on fuel (Younglai, 2006).

Analysts have quantified the reduced ice road season. Prior to 1996, the ice road season in much of Canada’s North averaged about seventy-five days. Since 1996, the ice road season has averaged forty-seven days (Weber, 2005). At Norman Wells, NWT an ice road crosses the Mackenzie River. Currently, the ice crossing is open 178 days per year. In the coming decades, scientists predict that this ice crossing will only be safely operable for between 138 to 148 days per year (Lonergan et al., 1993). These shorter ice road seasons mean that shippers need to be able to make all their required deliveries within reduced time periods. Figure 2 shows the length of the ice road season in Manitoba, east of Lake Winnipeg. Three recent winters in that region have suffered from unusually brief ice road seasons.

Figure 2 Length of Ice Road Season, East Side of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. Source: Abdul-Hay et al., 2003.

Possible Solutions

It is imperative that governments and corporations take action in response to Northern Canada’s ice road crisis. Responses fall into two categories: redesigning ice roads to extend their period of operability or coming up with alternatives to ice roads. In terms of redesigning ice roads, options include alternate routing and the use of permanent bridges (Abdul-Hay et al., 2003). Alternatives to ice roads include permanent all-season roads and barge transportation (CCIAP, 2004).

Changing the routing of some ice roads may extend their operating seasons. Relocating roads to higher ground and along routes with fewer stream crossings may allow them to be open for longer periods of time in the winter. Also, by making the entrances to ice roads at more northerly locations, the ice road season may be extended by up to seventeen days (Abdul-Hay et al., 2003).

Where ice roads must cross streams, permanent bridges can be built. Permanent stream crossings allow ice roads to continue to be used in conditions when only the ice bridges would be inoperable (CCIAP, 2004). In Manitoba this is already happening to some extent, with the use of what are called Meccano Bridges. Meccano Bridges are pre-fabricated, one-size-fits-all bridges built in Winnipeg and transported to northern ice roads. They span twelve metres and cost $30,000 each to make and set up. This is remarkably inexpensive, considering that they last about twenty years (Prentice et al., 2003).

The problem with redesigning ice roads is that the fundamental issue remains unaddressed. While perhaps mitigating the problem, ice roads will still be vulnerable to increasingly warm weather resulting in shrinking time windows of operability. Given this shortcoming, I now explore some alternatives to ice roads.

One ice road alternative is to build more all-season roads in Northern Canada. There have been plans to build more permanent roads in the North for some time (Abdul-Hay et al., 2003). One plan calls for a road linking several communities along the West Coast of Hudson Bay. However, very few of these plans have ever been carried out (Dick & Gallagher, 2005). Because of melting permafrost and exposure to successive periods of freezing and thawing, permanent roads in the North are unstable and expensive to maintain. Figure 3 shows the cracking that results from alternate freezing and thawing of paved roads. In fact, it is estimated that maintenance of permanent roads cost five to ten times more than maintenance of ice roads (Abdul-Hay et al., 2004).

Figure 3 Cracked roads are common in Northern Canada during winter due to freeze-thaw cycles. Source: Abdul-Hay et al., 2003.

Another alternative to ice road transportation in the North is barge transportation. In fact, in the Mackenzie Valley, most goods are already shipped by barge. This is because barge is the cheapest method of goods shipment in the region. And, global warming may allow the barge-shipping season to be extended, perhaps offsetting the reduced ice road season (Lonergan et al., 1993). Of course, this solution is geographically limited to locations accessible by water. Much of the North is landlocked and even areas that do have access to waterbodies, port infrastructure is lacking and would be expensive to develop (CCIAP, 2004).

Airships: A Promising Solution

The most promising and exciting alternative to ice road transportation is transportation by airships. In 2002, then Federal Transport Minister, David Collenette attended a conference in Winnipeg that explored the idea of using helium-filled balloons or airships to transport goods to Canada’s North (Perreaux, 2002). Some claim that airships could become a common sight in northern skies within five years (Younger-Lewis, 2005). If that were to occur, airships would not be new to Canada’s Arctic. As far back as the 1890s hydrogen balloons were used for exploration of the Arctic. After the Hindenburg disaster in 1936, in which a hydrogen balloon exploded, the technology lost its appeal. However, the new breed of balloons would be much safer, as non-explosive helium gas would be used (Dick & Gallagher, 2005).

Modern airship designs can be spherical or cigar-shaped (Dick & Gallagher 2005: 4). Figure 4 shows a typical spherical airship. There are advantages and disadvantages with each type of design. Traditional cigar-shaped airships are more aerodynamic and experience less wind drag. Spherical air ships have the advantage of being more maneuverable. Spherical airships also can reach altitudes of 6.3 kilometres—four times higher than cigar-shaped airships. Spherical airships also have the ability to take off and land on water (Prentice et al., 2003). Computer-controlled engines are used to “adjust propeller vectors to maintain altitude with upward thrust, to allow hovering, and to angle the craft into the wind” (Dick & Gallagher, 2005). Cargo loads vary with different designs, but some may be able to carry up to 500 tonnes of cargo (Younger-Lewis, 2005). Some airship designs do not even require pilots, as they can be operated from the ground, by remote control (Prentice et al., 2003).

Figure 4 Spherical Airship. Source: Blanchard, 2002.

There are several advantages associated with airships compared to ice roads and other alternatives. The main advantage is that airships would drastically increase accessibility to and within the North. The airships would not require landing strips or any other infrastructure other than the vehicles themselves. They could go virtually anywhere in the North, at any time. And, at speeds of 95 kilometres per hour, they would be very fast (Prentice et al., 2003).

Another advantage is that airships would be cheaper than everything else (Dick & Gallagher, 2005). Savings result from the fact that infrastructure other than the airships themselves is not needed (Prentice et al., 2003). There would also be storage savings. Currently, cargo must be stored until ice roads are ready or until rivers are unfrozen and safe for barge travel. With airships, these delays would be eliminated, resulting in savings for shipping companies and their clients. It is estimated that shipping costs on a 150-tonne capacity airship would likely be about forty percent less than truck shipping (Dick & Gallagher, 2005).

Proponents argue that an additional advantage of airships is that they may be operated all year-round. Currently, there is only a brief window when northern communities can be accessed by ice road or barge. If these communities could receive deliveries twice per week year round, northern residents would experience significant improvements in terms of quality of life (Prentice et al., 2003).

Airships, as a cheap and reliable means of transportation, would act as a catalyst for economic development in the North. The lack of transportation infrastructure in Canada’s North has constrained economic development (Younger-Lewis, 2005). Petroleum regions in the Northwest Territories have significantly fewer oil wells compared to similar areas in Alberta because of the lack of access for personnel and supplies. Petroleum, gold, and diamond mining activities would all benefit from airship transportation (Prentice et al., 2003; Younger-Lewis, 2005).

It has even been claimed that airships may be the key to protecting Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic. One airship enthusiast envisions massive Canadian-flag bearing airships flying in Canada’s northern skies. Such ships would be strong symbols of Canada’s status as a northern country (Dick & Gallagher, 2005).

Airship transportation would cause few environmental impacts. They essentially would leave no footprint on the land. While, they would require the use of diesel fuel for their engines, the amount required would be small. Also, engineers are working on creating airships equipped with solar panels to minimize their use of diesel fuel (Prentice et al., 2003).

There would be some problems with airships. One problem is that they cannot be operated in winds greater than fifty-five kilometres per hour. This means that, contrary to claims of some proponents, there would be some days when weather conditions would prevent airship transportation. However, analysis of weather patterns in the Northern Canada indicates that for most areas, weather conditions would disrupt airship transport less than ten percent of the days in a year (Dick & Gallagher, 2005). This would still be much better than the brief period when ice roads can be operated.

Another problem is that the technology still needs to be refined. Despite advances, the vehicles are still difficult to steer (Van Praet 2003). Also, in order for airships to be used year-round in the Arctic, navigation systems would need to be developed allowing travel during the dark winter months (Dick & Gallagher, 2005)

Northern Canada’s vast network of ice roads is highly vulnerable to global warming. Already, northern communities are beginning to experience shorter ice road seasons as a result of warm winter weather. This has resulted in shortages of food, fuel, and other supplies and has hampered resource extraction. There are several possible responses to this transportation challenge, including changes to the routing of ice roads, permanent bridges along ice road routes, constructing all-season roads, increased reliance on barge transportation, and the development of airship transportation. Every option has certain challenges associated with it, but airship technology is the most promising. Airship transportation would be cheaper than the alternatives and would greatly increase accessibility throughout the North.

This essay was written in 2006 for a third-year course on the Geography of Transportation.


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