Changing climate an ‘important factor’ in future Manitoba highway planning

Click to play video: 'Climate changes could to lead to more highway issues in future'
Climate changes could to lead to more highway issues in future
A series of crashes on highways across Southern Manitoba Tuesday has once again renewed conversations around road safety and maintenance. As Will Reimer reports, experts say there's no shortage of ways the province should be preparing – Mar 9, 2022

A series of crashes on highways across southern Manitoba Tuesday is once again renewing conversations around road safety and maintenance during extreme weather.

Mounties said there were dozens of reports of incidents on Highway 1, Winnipeg emergency services were called to about six crashes on the Perimeter Highway, and a multiple-vehicle collision on McGillivray Boulevard sent two people to hospital.

The incidents happened amid blizzard conditions in what has been an exceptionally snowy winter, and perhaps a sample of what Manitobans can expect in the years ahead as the effects of climate change become more profound.

“Our storms that we do experience and that we’re used to are going to become more intense and a bit more frequent,” says Darren Swanson, a senior associate with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, adding extremes on either end of the spectrum will become more common.

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“In the winter and spring we could expect more snow and more precipitation, but drier in our summer months … a lot of dry periods of course; the drying and the cracking and the heat can really cause issues (on highways) in the summer, and the wind is a big deal too.”

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Swanson is one of the authors of a report titled Advancing the Climate Resilience of Canadian Infrastructure, which was released last summer.

His work detailed anticipated effects on road infrastructure that are almost too numerous to list.

“We’re going to have changing precipitation patterns in the future, and that’s going to cause a number of impacts like reduced structural integrity of roads, it’s going to (cause) premature weathering of roads, flooding of infrastructure, and increased risk of critical events, of course,” Swanson says.

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Ahmed Shalaby, a transportation engineering professor at the University of Manitoba, agrees climate change is going to be an “important factor” in road maintenance in the years to come.

“We get more events of the contraction and expansion affecting our structures and our roads to the point that they can no longer handle the stresses,” Shalaby says.

“The change in the extremes is really what we’re designing for the future.”

The means using materials in road construction that are more resilient and better able to handle swings from intense heat to bitter cold.

In the shorter term, Shalaby says the province could consider expanding the use of shelterbelts to improve visibility and keep snow off the highways, and spray more de-icing agents onto roads before winter storms to make them easier to clear.

Swanson says there are three key areas authorities will need to take into account in the years to come: risk-informed planning, innovative structural and technical solutions, and enhanced monitoring and maintenance.

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“The planning aspect involves improved siting of a lot of our roads. Maybe in flood-prone areas, siting on higher ground for example,” Swanson says.

“In the structural sense, there’s repairs that can be made, new materials, geotextiles, different ways that roads can be built and repaired that make them perform better in freeze-thaw cycles and less prone to washouts.”

Notably, Swanson says many areas will need to increase the size of culverts at some point due to increasing levels of precipitation.

“Things need to happen faster because climate change is not waiting for us at all,” Swanson says.

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