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In the crosshairs: From carbon sinks to energy-efficient materials, MTO targets climate change


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March 18, 2020 by Saul Chernos

An ice road in Northern Ontario. Winter roads continue to play an important role for remote regions of the province. PHOTO: MTO

With a highway network stretching 17,000 kilometres, 2,850 bridges, 29 airports, 11 ferry services and numerous other assets to manage, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation is on the front lines when it comes to mitigating the effects of climate change.

At the annual convention of the Ontario Road Builders Association (ORBA) in Toronto this February, Mike Pearsall, manager of MTO’s design and contract standards office, outlined impacts on the provincial transportation network and highlighted measures the ministry hopes will keep things running smoothly.

It was clear from the session description, Climate Change: Adapting Infrastructure in Ontario’s North and Beyond, that changes in climate norms are especially evident in Ontario’s far north, with thawing permafrost eroding the stability of roads, buildings and other infrastructure.

However, average temperatures are expected to rise two to three degrees by 2050, and even more in northern Ontario, with floods, ice storms and other extreme weather increasing in frequency and intensity province-wide.

“We have to respond,” Pearsall says, warning about potential new warm-weather diseases, changes in growing seasons and multiple transportation-related consequences.

If northern airports are rendered inaccessible due to prolonged freezing rain or forest fires, fuel and food deliveries and even emergency medical transport could be hampered, Pearsall says.

Thawing permafrost and warming temperatures are already shortening the winter ice road season, threatening to isolate particularly remote communities from needed goods and services. “Ontario has 3,100 kilometres of winter roads,” Pearsall says. “That’s the largest network of winter roads of any jurisdiction in Canada.”

Pearsall outlined a number of measures MTO is planning and in some cases has implemented as part of Ontario’s climate change mitigation and adaptation strategy.

These include online tools to help predict the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events. MTO’s Road Weather Information System is designed to provide real-time atmospheric and pavement condition data for winter maintenance decisions.
MTO is also converting its network of remote airports to solar and wind power and switching to energy-efficient LED lighting.

“Normally a lot of these airports were reliant on diesel generators,” Pearsall says. “But that’s been one of these catch-22 situations — you run a diesel generator to have electricity to keep the airport open, but the diesel generator contributes to the greenhouse gases which contributes to the effect you’re trying to counter.”

Other measures include recycling road materials, including earth and rock right on-site and using energy-efficient materials and prefabricated bridge elements designed to expedite construction. Crews are also implementing at-source erosion control, trenchless technologies, planting roadside vegetation to provide carbon sinks and using pervious pavements to enhance drainage. Transportation planners are looking to reduce congestion, curb engine idling and promote carpooling and electric vehicles.

Still, significant challenges lie ahead. Electric vehicles require considerably more charging infrastructure, particularly in the sparse north. Pearsall also wonders, “How long is it going to be before we see electric construction equipment on our sites?”

The measures are in keeping with the Ontario government’s 2018 climate change plans, aimed at reducing emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. They also stick to global accords.

“Through discussions with our counterparts at other transportation agencies across Canada, Ontario is seen as a strong leader in including climate change aspects in our highway activities, everything from procurement through to construction and operation and maintenance,” Pearsall says.

 


Saul Chernos is a freelance writer.

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This article first appeared in the March 2020 edition of On-Site. You can read through the whole issue here.