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Formidable foe: Ice build up on roads proving tough to tackle

The Crow Wing County Highway Department tested an ice breaker plow attachment on several county highways last week. The attachment, one of the newest tools used by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, is used to break up ice bonded to roads. Source: Crow Wing County

Even an ice breaker plow attachment is no match for the layer of ice on many county highways, the Crow Wing County Highway Department learned last week.

Jory Danielson, maintenance supervisor, said the ice breaker is one of the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s newest tools to rid the roads of winter ice. The rolling attachment is covered in spikes, used to puncture the ice and break it up as a plow is driven. The tool is used by the Alaska Department of Transportation and is popular at airports.

Danielson said they targeted some of the more troublesome locations on county highways, including County Highway 16 between Crosslake and Highway 371, County Highway 18 east of Nisswa, County Highway 39 in Ideal Township and County Highway 4 in Merrifield.

“Not even the ice breaker impacted the ice bond on these roads,” Danielson said.

With equipment specialized for the purpose of ice removal not effective on the ice covering county roads, Danielson said it’s mostly a waiting game.

“No matter what we seem to try we seem to hit a roadblock,” Danielson said. “We’re hoping we’re going to have temps coming up later in the week or next week.”

The department is using special edges for the plow, called Sharq edges, that offer the ability to groove the ice and provide for better traction. Plow truck drivers continue to add sand to the roads as salt is not effective unless the road temperature is 15 degrees or higher. While the roads might reach that temperature, the ice layer on top of it remains colder. Danielson said even on days when temperatures have exceeded that threshold, the salt melts some of the ice, but not enough before temperatures drop again.

The problem lies in both the thickness of the ice as well as its smoothness, Danielson said.

“It’s pure clean, clear ice,” Danielson said. “Usually, you’ll get a little snow mixed in it, what we call dirty ice. And then it gets air pockets.”

Danielson said the smooth ice makes it difficult for the plows to scrape the ice, and also does not provide surface for the sand to cling to. Monday’s snowfall would help with traction, he added.

Danielson said while some of these issues are perennial concerns for the highway department, this winter has presented challenges in ways at least the last two previous winters did not. The season kicking off with a blizzard of wet, heavy snow and the Christmas Day ice storm were both weather events that stretched the limits of the highway department’s response.

The last two winters were a lot milder winters where it was easier for us,” Danielson said. “We probably raised expectations a little bit. We’re not really doing anything different than the last two winters.”

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