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Expert Interviews

Robert Zschuppe Discusses Supporting Resilient Winter Roads

Headshot of Robert Zschuppe

Robert Zschuppe is Tetra Tech’s Arctic regional manager and senior winter roads and ice engineer.

He works across northern Canada, traveling frozen waterbodies and inspecting ice projects. His expertise includes a range of load-bearing ice engineering applications such as winter roads and ice bridges, frozen tailings, ice pads for construction and drilling, and incident response. He has been the senior engineer on many of the world’s longest heavy-haul winter roads. Robert is proud to be a member of a continually innovative and evolving branch of engineering that prioritizes user safety and how we approach ice as a working platform. He has a bachelor’s degree in geological engineering and master’s degree in earth sciences, both from the University of Waterloo, Canada.


What are some common misunderstandings about winter roads?

Misunderstandings often revolve around risk—both the overall perception of risk and the primary sources of risk exposure.

The most common perception of winter roads is that they are inherently unsafe. Winter roads, often called ice roads, have captured the public’s imagination—and with good reason. They traverse a stunningly beautiful environment, and there is a real sense of awe when working on them. That’s what attracts many of us to the work. Unfortunately, there’s also been a glorification of the dangers in television and movies like The Ice Road—mea culpa, as I designed safe on-ice procedures for that film—and that can permeate to some workplaces. But there are many means of mitigating winter road hazards and operating them as a safe and effective means of transport.

Another common misunderstanding is where risk lies. Incidents rarely happen during a winter road’s hauling or operations phases; they usually happen during construction. To properly address this, a strong focus should be on designing a winter road’s construction to include first-on-ice procedures, early ice characterization assessment, proper construction equipment selection, and the decision-making for deploying construction equipment on floating ice. That’s the reason we so often push this area with our clients—our team has seen it all, and that industry-wide experience is going to help them here.


What are some of the biggest barriers in the winter road industry today?

The biggest barrier today is arguably the same as it’s always been: the short nature of the season. The typical season length of three months puts a practical limit on field experience, research, and revenue. That challenge is compounded by a lack of funding in ice-related industries. Winter roads used to benefit from offshore oil and gas research, but interest in the field and the associated funding is mostly gone. As a result, there is just a small group of experts who rely on each other and their annual projects to keep the industry moving forward.


What advice would you give to a new client constructing a winter road?

For industrial clients, I’d say that winter roads are almost always a mission-critical task. They’re built to transport specific equipment and resources, such as fuel, and they’re often the only financially viable option. In a mission-critical project with numerous hazards and climate unpredictability, experience pays. Your best bet is to work with an experienced, high-quality team. The full project team includes the construction contractor, logistics coordinator, and engineering firm. Ask for references, ask for a list of projects, ask contractors for incident statistics, and ask for their assessment of the project’s biggest risk. The differences between suppliers should be evident. Don’t go for low-cost options on mission-critical tasks, particularly when those tasks can carry significant hazards if done incorrectly.


What can clients do to make more resilient roads in the face of climate change?

The ice season is short, and when it ends, it ends. Unfortunately, climate change-related variability means your operations may be forced to end sooner than expected. There are some construction practices that will help winter roads withstand short-term warm weather periods, but the most effective approach is to be proactive in your planning. That includes understanding the seasonal expectations for your project location, the weather extremes, and using that knowledge to realistically map out your construction and hauling milestones. If you’re delayed two weeks due to poor planning, you’re not going to find those two weeks on the back end unless you’re extremely lucky with the weather.


What are the big areas going forward?

Winter roads on alternative frozen floating materials, such as tailings and muskeg, have become a much bigger topic in recent years—specifically, the characterization associated with the variability of those materials. As more clients seek support in their use of frozen muskeg and tailings covers, the elements of ice engineering, geophysics, and geotechnical engineering are coming together to advance the industry.

We’re also seeing continual improvements across load-bearing ice applications that are leading to an overall evolution in how we approach projects, including winter roads. This includes the use of historical satellite imagery, strength testing methods, advanced ground penetrating radar usage, strength and creep modeling, and improved construction approaches. There is still tremendous room for innovation, which is exciting.

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