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June 17, 2010updated 19 Aug 2016 10:05am

From potholes to ice roads, and back again

While you may curse potholes on British roads, estimated as they are to cost motorists £2.8 billion per year, they are small beer compared to the dangers of the ice roads of the frozen North

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While you may curse potholes on British roads, estimated as they are to cost motorists £2.8 billion per year, they are small beer compared to the dangers of the ice roads of the frozen North.

Ice roads are built on frozen waterways in Canada, Alaska, Northern Scandinavia and Russia, on ice only thick enough to support vehicles for a matter of days each winter. Such roads provide a treacherous lifeline to communities and industries in these areas, supplying them with goods and equipment that must last all year.

Since such roads were developed in the 1950s, many vehicles and their drivers have fallen through to a watery grave in the -40°C temperatures. Truckers drove with one hand on the door handle in the hope of a quick exit.

Thankfully the ice roads of today, like the 353-mile Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road, are somewhat safer thanks to the latest technology. Often first across the frozen lakes in January is a Swedish-made Hägglund reconnaissance vehicle, designed to float if it falls through the ice. Millions of gallons of water are pumped onto the ice to strengthen it once a route has been established, but even then a heavy vehicle creates a wave of water moving ahead and beneath the ice that can cause it to break up if the vehicle travels too fast. Speeds are usually limited to a frustrating 15 or 20 miles an hour, and drivers still wear immersion suits to help keep them alive if the worst happens.

A truck falls through an 'ice road'.

In 1970, temperatures were cold enough to allow safe travel on ice roads for more than 200 days of the year, according to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Today, it’s shrunk to half that thanks to rising temperatures. But at least unlike on British roads, minor potholes on ice roads can simply be filled with a bucket of water.

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Hat tip for inspiring this blog entry: Keith Stewart at Brocade.

 

 

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