Ice Roads

Ice road near Salekhard, Russia.

Ice road near Salekhard, Russia.

Engineering is all about meeting the needs of society using the resources that are available. I recently heard of one very interesting example of a transportation system that was designed for a society with very specific resources and challenges – Siberian “ice roads.”

My father recently visited Salekhard, a town near the Arctic Circle in Siberia. Salekhard’s transportation system faces unique challenges due to its remoteness and its long, cold winters. Although roads made of typical paving materials are used within the town itself, it is not feasible to construct and maintain roads to the many remote villages that surround it. The solution: “зимники,” (pronounced “ZEEM-neek”) or “ice roads.”

Siberian “ice roads” are simply paths cutting through the snow and ice of the Siberian tundra that allow cars and trucks to drive through an area that would otherwise be impassible by automobiles. Although they are somewhat (but only slightly) maintained, these “roads” are by no means a walk in the park. They are extremely rough on a vehicle’s suspension, and the route is very poorly defined. In fact, it is advised that drivers only travel on an ice road at night, when their vehicle’s headlights cast shadows over the uneven road surface, helping them to stay on the actual road and not drift off on to the unmaintained tundra that surrounds it. Unfortunately, if a vehicle does drift off the road or break down in another way, the traveler(s) must wait in the subzero temperatures until a vehicle capable of assisting them happens to pass by. Due to remoteness of the area, this could be on the order of several hours.

“Ice roads” are not unique to Siberia. Many northern countries, including Canada, Estonia, the Scandinavian countries, and even the US, have their own ice roads. However, the terminology most often used by English speakers differs slightly from that used by Russians. While the “ice roads” of Siberia do include some river crossings, such as the road crossing the Ob River near Salekhard, they are primarily used to cross land (tundra). In common English usage, the term “winter road” is used to describe this type of path, while “ice road” specifically refers to a road built on a body of water that is frozen-over, such as a lake or river.

This water-crossing type of ice road owes its development largely to Canada’s Northwest Territories, where the landscape is dotted with many lakes of a variety of sizes. In the 1930’s, thriving mining operations in this remote northern region led truckers to create roads across frozen lakes to shorten the transport time of goods to and from these mining towns. This type of road soon gained traction (despite the ice) both in northern Canada and other arctic and subarctic regions of the world.

Although ice roads over water are inherently dangerous, they are fairly well understood and maintained, making them reasonably safe for the experienced ice road truck driver. Various rules designed to prevent road failure are in place on such routes. While the specifics of these rules differ from place to place, they share many common features. For example, on many roads, driving is only allowed during that day. Perhaps the most important of these rules limit the speed at which truckers may drive. Although one might that think these speed limits are in place to ensure proper traction between trucks’ tires and road-ice, they are actually intended to prevent the buildup of a pressure wave in the lake water that could damage the road.

One of the most famous ice roads, the “Road of Life” to Leningrad, provided that city a vital link to unoccupied Russian territory during the Siege of Leningrad by Nazi forces during WWII. This road across Lake Ladoga was used to transport food, medicine, and munitions into the city, and women, children, and the elderly out of it. This makeshift supply route served as the city’s lifeblood for the several year siege, being reconstructed by the determined Soviets each winter. Eventually, even rail-road tracks were laid on the ice in order to allow trains to cross the frozen lake.

The very existence of ice rods can teach the transportation engineer several very important lessons. Ice roads demonstrate the necessity of transportation for even the most inaccessible of locations. They also show mankind’s determination and willingness to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order to obtain this vital asset. Ice roads should challenge transportation engineers to produce better solutions by demonstrating that even the most challenging transportation problems can be overcome with determination and ingenuity.


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