There seems to be some interest in ice roads, no doubt due to the cable TV show “Ice Road Truckers”. That show takes place in Canada. Here in Alaska there are a few differences. Here’s a short primer on Alaskan ice roads.
Ice roads in Alaska are predominantly built and maintained for industrial uses such as oil and gas extraction, and mining, although community of Nuiqsut currently accesses the Dalton Highway and the Deadhorse Airport by an ice road connector to existing oilfield roads on the North Slope. Although useful for seasonal travel across fragile tundra, ice roads are expensive to construct and only provide temporary access. On the North Slope, the cost to construct an ice road is approximately $100,000/mile. Experienced constructors can lay in 1 mile of ice road/day in the short season of only 100 to 120 days when temperatures are cold enough to sustain it. In addition to the cost, construction of ice roads requires substantial water resources. One mile of an onshore ice road 6 inches thick and 40 feet wide requires 1 to 1.5 million gallons of water, construction of an ice bridge needs 10 million gallons, a single ice pad for drilling requires 2 to 3.6 million gallons, and an ice airstrip needs 8 million gallons of water, according to industry exploration plans. All this water must come from shallow freshwater lakes and ponds on the tundra.
Permits must be secured from both the federal Bureau of Land Management and the North Slope Borough for all ice roads. Once permitted, water or ice chips are placed on the surface. Water trucks apply water over the route until the surface is built up to at least six inches thick. Ice roads are staked to facilitate driving and help with snow removal. Over the course of the ice road’s operation, litter or contamination is removed by ice road monitoring personnel. When an ice road is ready to be shut down for the season, it is inspected for any remaining contamination, cleaned, stakes are removed, and snow is piled at the entrances to prevent further use of the route. At break-up, the ice road melts. The routes are inspected by helicopter during the summer for any remaining litter or debris.
Back in the 1970s, temperatures were generally cold enough to allow safe tundra travel on ice roads for more than 200 days per year, according to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) data. That period has now shrunk to about 100 days. Warming trends on the North Slope make reliance on ice roads complicated, since they are being built later in the season and melting sooner. Ice roads are best constructed when weather is about -20º to -30º F. Too warm and you don’t get ice. Too cold and the ice is too brittle to drive on. Alaska has been through warming trend cycles over the last several decades as reported by the Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research. Their models indicate that Alaskan temperatures may increase 3º F to 4.5º F by 2030, with the greatest increases in the arctic region. By 2100, models predict increases of 7º F to 18º F and an increase in precipitation up to 25 inches. A result of the warming trend is a reduction in the ice road season and an increase in the cost of the road.