Engineers Learn How to Deal with Challenging Environments at Cold Regions Conference

ASCE's president, Andrew W. Herrmann, left, and Jim Kells, the president of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineering
ASCE cosponsored the Fifteenth International Specialty Conference on Cold Regions Engineering, which was held August 19–22 in the city of Québec. The event’s plenary sessions and numerous technical sessions were designed to help engineers maintain high technical standards when working under extremely challenging and inhospitable conditions. On hand to open the conference were ASCE’s president, Andrew W. Herrmann, P.E., SECB, F.ASCE, right, and Jim Kells, Ph.D., P.Eng., Aff.M.ASCE, the president of the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering. Andrew W. Herrmann 
By Doug Scott

In May 2011 the government of Quebec launched a 25-year, $80-billion project called Plan Nord to develop the northern territory of the province. The government believes that the project will provide access to the region’s vast natural resources, which will lead to new energy sources, new mining and forestry opportunities, increased tourism, and the construction of infrastructure. According to Clément Gignac, Quebec’s minister of natural resources and wildlife, the success of this project will depend to a great extent on “the establishment of innovative infrastructure” to deal with the harsh northern climate.

Civil engineers face numerous challenges in cold regions. In addition to extreme temperatures, extended periods of darkness or daylight, and the presence of permafrost or seasonally frozen ground, they must deal with a brief summer work season, remote locations, and logistical difficulties. In view of the fact that the Northwest Passage, the Northern Sea Route, Greenland, and northern Alaska are seeing an increase in shipping, tourism, and natural resource extraction, engineers need to know how to work under these conditions.

The Fifteenth International Specialty Conference on Cold Regions Engineering, held in the city of Québec August 19–22, had special significance for those involved in realizing Plan Nord, as the conference provided the perfect platform for civil engineers to exchange information, discuss lessons learned, and gain an insight into new technologies for working in inhospitable regions. The conference was sponsored by ASCE, the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering, Tetra Tech, Inc., of Pasadena, California, the agency Transport Canada, and the Quebec government, and its theme was “Sustainable Infrastructure in a Changing Cold Environment.”

ASCE has been involved in cold regions work for many years, and its Technical Council on Cold Regions Engineering (TCCRE) is concerned with ensuring that proper design and construction standards are developed for these regions.

“Specifically as sustainability applies to cold regions, ASCE’s Technical Council on Cold Regions Engineering has been a leader in providing research, design standards, and case studies and forensics on cold regions issues, including encouraging greater adoption of sustainability into designs and their execution,” said ASCE’s president, Andrew W. Herrmann, P.E., SECB, F.ASCE, in his address at the opening of the conference. “In recent years the technical council has been turning its attention to infrastructure development in the Arctic as it opens up to shipping, drilling, tourism, and other growth. TCCRE wants to ensure that standards and best practices are developed for project development that apply sustainability principles and are adaptable to changing climate conditions and increased demand.”

“The theme of the conference, ‘Sustainable Infrastructure Development in a Changing Cold Environment,’ is particularly appropriate given that one of [the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering’s] current strategic directions is leadership in sustainable infrastructure,” said Jim Kells, Ph.D., P.Eng., Aff.M.ASCE, the president of the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering, in his opening remarks. “Indeed, much of the work done by civil engineers is associated with our nation’s infrastructure in support of a healthy, modern society. And in Canada, and also in many other parts of the world, our reality is that we must address the needs of infrastructure development and renewal in a cold climate context.”

“The main challenge for engineers in cold climates,” explains Guy Doré, Ph.D., M.ASCE, the chairman of the conference’s local organizing committee and a professor in the civil engineering department at Université Laval, “is that our usual standards in construction practice are poorly adapted to the north.

“And what I mean is, when you are in warmer climates, you are working on a relatively stable foundation, but when you are working in cold climates, you are building on something that is likely to be very unstable. So even if you do an excellent job of designing your structure, you have to consider that your climate is going to change, and that means two things: your temperature and your moisture are going to increase. So those are two very important factors in permafrost stability because if you have an increase in temperature, the soil temperature is going to also increase and the permafrost will degrade. Therefore, engineers who apply usual standards in construction in cold regions will get into very serious problems because they have to be very knowledgeable on the dynamics of permafrost and they have to adapt all their designs to those conditions.”

The conference was divided into five general topics as they relate to cold regions: ports and waterways; structural engineering; soil mechanics; transportation infrastructure; and embankments, roads, and railways.

After hearing addresses on Plan Nord at the opening plenary session delivered by Sandra LaFortune, the director general of strategic policy and innovation at Transport Canada, and Robert Sauvé, Quebec’s deputy minister of natural resources and wildlife, the conference attendees turned their attention to the various technical sessions. The topics covered at these sessions included embankment engineering in permafrost; the behavior of frozen soil; road and pavement design; structural engineering; river ice processes; foundation design; climate change; materials in cold regions; navigation in seasonally frozen waterways; and winter road maintenance.

In his keynote lecture, Don Hayley, Tetra Tech’s director of Arctic development, spoke on the challenges of cold regions engineering, drawing on his experience as chair of Canada’s national committee for the International Permafrost Association and as director of the Canadian Geotechnical Society. The conference’s other plenary sessions featured panel discussions on the challenges encountered in building infrastructure and carrying out research in cold regions.

“The conference was a great success,” says Doré, who defines cold environments as those with either seasonal frost or permanent frost. “The quality of the technical program was outstanding, and we had very good paper submissions in terms of both numbers, eighty-five, and quality. I believe we came up with a program that was at a very high level for engineers in attendance.”

“The combination of a wonderful venue, excellent technical program, an exciting city, and outstanding food resulted in the fifteenth being one of the best in our International Specialty Conference on Cold Regions Engineering series,” says Jon Zufelt, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, the TCCRE’s chair.

Next year the TCCRE and ASCE’s Alaska Section will sponsor the 10th International Symposium on Cold Regions Development, which will be held in Anchorage June 2–5. The symposium’s theme is “Planning for Sustainable Cold Regions.” For more information about the event, click here.

For those interested in learning more about or joining the TCCRE, click here.

 Photos by Marc-Andre Grenier