What is an Ice Road?
The Canadian Ice Road is a very unique transportation network in Northern Canada that 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 get the visual check out the Netflix movie Ice Road. This reality show demonstrates the extensive logistics efforts on the world’s longest ice highway. The ice road depicted in this show originates from Yellowknife, NWT to three diamond mines. 86 percent of the ice road is across frozen lakes.
When is it built?
The seasons are changing and many of Canada’s ice roads are becoming more dangerous 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 featuring sub-surface interface radar to calculate thickness. Once the construction is final, the ice road usually opens in January.
How do vehicles circulate?
The trucks always cross the ice in a convoy that is carefully spaced apart. They have constant chatter on the CB radios. Every convoy has an escort—a group of people that can also use a satellite phone to radio dispatch if needed, or repair trucks if they break down along the road.
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. The trucks run an average of two to three months when the iced-over lakes and rivers have the proper depth of ice. It must be over forty-two inches thick before the heavy loaded big rigs are allowed to pass across the ice road, and once they start out, they must finish.
But it’s not the threat of breaking through the ice that makes these roads dangerous, as the Department of Transportation 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, funded and managed by federal agencies in conjunction with provincial and territorial governments to service local communities. Some winter roads are created by the private sector, such as mining companies.
The oil and gas and mining industries performing exploration or drilling work require thicker, more well-maintained ice roads specifically because the work they do 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 is unless you have an ice road.
Ice Road to Diamonds
This Ice Road has been jointly run by three mining companies – Diavik Diamond Mines, Dominion Diamond Corporation, and De Beers Canada – for over 20 years since the start of Canada’s diamond rush in 1999.
During the few weeks the road is open, they use it to deliver up to 10,000 loads of essential supplies and equipment 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 and is also responsible for building the spur roads to Gahcho Kué and Snap Lake.