CALGARY, Alta. – While a relatively balmy winter right across Canada has renewed heated debates about global warming, the trucking industry is reeling from the hidden costs of a mild winter.
Many Canadians have been relishing the mild temperatures this winter has had to offer, but trucking companies have struggled with on again, off again spring weight restrictions and delays in winter road construction.
The rise in average winter temperatures throughout the winter months has especially created obstacles for fleets servicing remote northern communities and companies in a few of the Atlantic provinces.
In the Northwest Territories a unique system of ice roads is used to transport a number of essential goods to areas not serviced by traditional highways. But to construct the ice roads, Mother Nature has to cooperate.
“The first thing you have to do is get the snow off the ice because it acts as an insulator. This year the ice wasn’t thick enough to put snow-Cats out and get the snow off,” explained Erik Madsen, northern affairs manager for Diavik Diamond Mines.
Madsen is also part of the four-person Tibbitt to Contwoyto Joint Venture Management Committee, which oversees the 600-km ice road stretch from Tibbitt Lake to Contwoyto Lake.
The ideal temperatures to build the ice roads are between -25 C and -30 C. Problems can also occur when the temperature gets too cold, down to around -40 C, causing the ice to become brittle.
But this winter warm temperatures have caused delays in maximizing the ice road season.
“We’re not at full loads yet, but we’re hauling at about 90 per cent right now,” Madsen told Truck News in early March. “We’re probably sitting at about 10 days later than normal due to the warm weather in the month of December.”
A typical ice road season will span about 65 days beginning at the end of January. During that time a number of essential goods are hauled to remote areas over a network of roads constructed over frozen lakes and tundra.
To maximize efficiency, travel along the winter roads is in operation 24 hours a day. Due to the delicacy of the operation only four trucks can depart every 20 minutes.
“You have to allow time for the ice to heal,” said Madsen, “as the travel creates waves underneath the ice. That’s 12 trucks every hour, with a maximum of 288 trucks in one day. Now, the most we’ve done in a 24-hour period is 259 trucks.”
Many drivers prefer travelling the winter roads during daylight hours, but with the shortened season more time slots are required to be filled, said Madsen.
“We have about 80 to 100 more trucks moving stuff up there. As of today, we have brought 3,900 loads up the road, which is a mixture of all different sorts of goods, freight, fuel, cement, steel,” noted Madsen. “Our anticipation this year is to haul 9,000 loads.”
With the warmer weather also comes the uncertainty of how long the season will last. Typically the ice roads stay open until around the end of March, but this year the warm weather may create an early closing. Prior to the ice roads opening, mines in the north were using helicopters to bring in fuel, but it is a costly operation and fuel is not the only product needing to be shipped.
“You can’t put a truck box in a plane and there are certain things that must go up the road,” said Madsen.
“They have to prioritize on what they need to stay operating,” agreed Glenn Bauer, president of Ventures West Transport, an Edmonton-based trucking fleet that serves the NWT. “If we don’t get it all in, it can affect our financial bottom line to a degree, but we have been hauling more light loads than we normally would.”
Ventures West hauls fuel throughout the western provinces, but the winter and ice road season is one of its main sources of business – particularly hauling into the diamond mines in the north. This year has proven to be the latest start of the ice road hauling season for the company and the warm weather has not only created a later start but delayed construction of the ice roads as well.
“The ice growth is slower and we’re not hauling at full capacity just yet,” said Bauer in early March. “Usually it takes about 20 days to get up to full weight in a good season, but it’s been going slow.”
This year the ice roads opened to light traffic on Feb. 4, which consisted of grocery trucks and small two-axle trucks. On Feb. 6 the road opened to light loads.
“On a Super-B we were hauling 42 per cent of allowable weights,” noted Bauer. “Our first loads we booked onto the ice were on Feb. 10 and that was 10,000-litres (of fuel).”
On March 1 Ventures West increased its loads to 39,000-litres, which is about 85 per cent of the allowable weight. Last year the company was hauling full loads by Feb. 20.
“There’s pressure on the part of suppliers to get the fuel into the mines,” said Bauer. “We anticipate we will be at full loads at around March 7 or 8 and continue until the end of the month, any days you get in April are just a bonus.”
But the solution is not as simple as putting more trucks on the ice road to ship the fuel north.
“It’s not just a matter of throwing more trucks up there,” explained Bauer. “Fuel is carted in from Edmonton to Hay River on the railroad and then the trucks pick it up and take it farther north. And there are only so many rail cars available.”
In Northern Manitoba the majority of a 2,200-km system of winter roads was finally opened to commercial traffic on Feb. 17.
The winter roads in the province are utilized to bring a combination of fuel, construction materials and freight to a number of remote communities not serviced by traditional roads. But warm weather was not the only problem experienced in constructing the network of winter roads, which is a joint venture between the provincial and federal governments.
Manitoba has experienced a large amount of rain as well this winter, explained Don Kuryk, who oversees the winter road operation in Manitoba.
The rivers, lakes and streams in the province are flowing at higher levels and warmer bodies of water create problems for building ice roads.
“Combine that with the mild winter and we have a major problem,” noted Kuryk. “The warm weather gave us a lot of rain and combine that with a warm winter, we were lucky to have some cold weather in February or we would have been in real trouble.”
Although the majority of the roads are now open to full loads there are some areas that are still problematic. A stretch from the top of Lake Winnipeg to the Ontario border opened in the first week of March, but only to half loads.
Three other communities in the province will not be getting any service from winter roads this year. In Pukatawagan the community will be relying on rail service to obtain required goods, while in Granville Lake a partial road is being built and will bring in supplies in conjunction with sleighs; and the community of Pauingassi will only receive partial supplies through sleighs.
“It’s been difficult and the worst scenario we’ve ever had presented,” noted Kuryk. “We’ve had to go above and beyond the regular in maintaining the winter roads.”
In Atlantic Canada the warmer winter temperatures have meant an on-again-off-again relationship with spring weight restrictions.
Along with the arrival of spring, weight restrictions on trucks are reduced to 75 per cent to help maintain the integrity of roads as the weather warms. But warmer temperatures in the winter months meant spring weight restrictions arrived sooner than expected.
Of the four Atlantic provinces, New Brunswick managed to escape any changes in its weight restriction timeline, but Prince Edward Island had to bring in restrictions on Jan. 14 and Nova Scotia followed suit on Jan. 23.
“Roughly the beginning of March is when the spring restrictions go into effect,” said Heather MacLean, coordinator of projects and policy with the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association. “It’s all weather-dependant but typically it runs
until mid-May. It’s a unique situation, it got a bit colder and they put the weights back up. It’s very disruptive because you never know when they are going to change.”
“People sign contracts where they expect to carry full weights, so it would definitely cost people a lot of money,” she added. “You’re basically taking that much off of your paycheque.”
Log haulers in Western Canada also were feeling the impact of a warm winter where it hurt the most – their paychecks.
Roy Nagel, head of the Central Interior Logging Association said “In early February we were facing the prospect of reduced load restrictions because of the warm weather. Usually our breakup is March 20-25 and we were looking at having break-up in the second or third week of February. Then we got sufficient cold weather and the roads froze back up.”
Nagel said it’s difficult to estimate the cost of an early break-up to the industry.
“We’ve tried at various times to see if we could calculate the cost of an early break-up but it’s difficult because it’s so region-specific,” he said.
According to data from Environment Canada, temperatures between December and February were the warmest on record since 1948. Temperatures were 3.9 C above normal this winter.
“We didn’t just break the (winter) record, we smashed it,” senior climatologist David Phillips told the Toronto Star.
Seasonal temperatures on average have remained above normal for the past eight years and six of the warmest 10 years in Canada’s history have occurred in the past decade.
Global warming seems to have a greater impact on low temperatures than it does on high temperatures, but people in the trucking industry hope this winter’s weather will not become the norm.
“I think it’s an anomaly, if you go back in time to the early ’80s, this season isn’t as long,” said Bauer. “It’s a bit of a wake-up call for the mines, but how they address it, I don’t know.”
In Manitoba, the province is making an effort to move as much of the winter road network to more reliable land crossings.
“We’ve moved a number of roads off of lakes for reliability and safety for those workers and travellers along those roads,” explained Kuryk. “The direction the government has taken is to provide the safest method to build roads and for the people to travel.”
At one time 30 per cent of the province relied on ice and winter roads. Today the number is down to around eight per cent.
“We’re looking to get below five per cent, but you can never completely get away from the ice roads because of some geography and terrain,” noted Kuryk.In the Maritimes the carriers are strictly at the mercy of Mother Nature.
“It’s bad luck and nobody can control the weather, but it will definitely effect people’s bottom line and will hurt them,” commented MacLean.
“Hopefully it won’t go like this next year. It will be interesting to see if it continues and if it does, people will have to adjust how they price things.”
Historical winter road statistics
OPENING DAY FOR THE TIBBITT
TO CONTWOYTO ICE ROAD:
LAST DAY FOR THE TIBBITT TO
CONTWOYTO ICE ROAD:
2004-March 31 (Road not closed, but all loads had been delivered)