What is an Ice Road?
The Canadian Ice Road is a very unique transportation network in North America. It links communities and resource operations with the “South”. This manufactured gateway can cross a stream, a lake or criss-cross many waterways. Further defined, an ice road or ice bridge is a human-made structure that runs primarily across frozen water surfaces.
To better understand the visual, you can watch the Netflix movie Ice Road. This reality show demonstrates the extensive logistics efforts on the world’s longest ice road. The ice road depicted in this show originates from Yellowknife, NWT to three diamond mines. 86 percent of the ice road is across frozen rivers and lakes.
When is it built?
The seasons are changing and many of Canada’s ice roads are becoming more dangerous. This is due to rising temperatures and subsequent melting. Ice roads are typically constructed in November or December, depending on weather and location.
The depth of the ice is calculated with augers, hand drills and even an ice profiler. The latter is equipped with a subsurface interface radar to calculate thickness. Once construction is complete, the ice road usually opens in January.
How do vehicles circulate?
Ice road truckers always cross the ice in a convoy that is carefully spaced apart. They talk constantly on CB radios, while driving at a very low speed limit. A group of individuals capable of repairing the trucks escort each convoy in case it breaks down on the road. In the event of a problem, the escort members use a satellite phone to contact dispatch by radio.
These experienced truckers are a necessary part of the transportation industries in Canada and Alaska. They are relied upon to haul the heavier loads that the planes cannot manage. On average, the trucks operate for two to three months when frozen lakes and rivers have sufficient ice thickness. Ice thickness must exceed 40 inches for trucks to be allowed on the ice road.
This rule is important to observe, because once the crossing has begun, it must be finished. That said, it’s not the threat of breaking through the ice that makes these roads dangerous. The Ministry of Transport keeps a close eye on their thickness, and the roads are constantly groomed and maintained. The real dangers are sheer cliffs, steep roads, and frigid temperatures.
Who builds and uses the ice roads?
There are “official” winter roads whose primary purpose is to serve local communities. These are funded and managed by federal agencies in collaboration with provincial and territorial governments. Some winter roads are created by the private sector, such as mining companies.
The oil, gas and mining industries that carry out exploration or drilling work need special ice roads. They need to be thicker and better maintained, not least because the work they perform requires larger, heavier equipment. The bigger rig has more weight and requires more to transport it. You’re not going to get out to where traditionally our oil and gas are unless you have an ice road.
Ice Road to Diamonds
This Ice Road has been jointly run by three mining companies. This has been the case for over 20 years, since the beginning of the Canadian diamond rush in 1999. The three companies in question are Diavik Diamond Mines, Dominion Diamond Corporation, and De Beers Canada.
During the few weeks the road is open, these three companies use it to deliver up to 10,000 loads. The main cargoes are supplies and equipment essential to their respective operations. The first loads of the 2023 resupply season started up the winter road to Gahcho Kué mine on February 6. An estimated 7,200 loads will go up and down the winter road during the 2023 season.
De Beers is a member of the joint venture that builds and operates the main Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road. The company is also responsible for building the spur roads to Gahcho Kué and Snap Lake.
Canada’s Ice Roads connect parts of the Northwest Territories with efficiency. While these types of road constructions are not built and maintained to last, they are a logistical masterpiece.