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Cold Eyed in Canada Bridge ‘Split’

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

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A “split” appearing in a new cable stay bridge in Ontario, Canada—a significant link connecting the east and west along the Trans-Canada Highway—is under investigation, while some focus blame on a cold snap affecting the region.

The Nipigon River Bridge appeared to pull apart Sunday (Jan. 10) as the west side of the bridge pulled away from the abutment, CBC News reported that day. The separation caused the deck to lift about 60 centimetres (about two feet), making it impassable to traffic and essentially cutting off access to southwestern Ontario.

"It's not just us. It's all of Canada that has a problem right now," Nipigon Mayor Richard Harvey told CBC News. "This is the one place in Canada where there is only one road, one bridge across the country."

The bridge, which opened in November, sits about 100 kilometers north of Thunder Bay, ON.

‘Big Gust of Wind,’ Cold Snap

Harvey told CBC News Sunday that, while engineers were investigating the cause of the failure, "the reality is nobody really knows what happened."

An eyewitness told the news agency that a gust of wind played a role in the incident.

“As we turned [onto the highway], we saw the whole bridge—a kind of big gust of wind came underneath it and blew it up and then it came back down," Ashley Littlefield said.

She added that two pickup trucks had flown into the air as they drove off its end, although no one was injured.

According to The Weather Network, high temperatures in the area measured in the negative mid teens, feeling close to -24 C (-12 F) in Nipigon at the time of the bridge failure.

The news site pointed out that extreme temperature variances can cause steel and other materials to expand and contract, although modern bridges are usually engineered with these fluctuations in mind.

Bolts Under Analysis

As of Tuesday (Jan. 12) morning, Gerry Chaput, the ministry's assistant deputy for provincial highways with the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, announced that bolts holding together a section of the new bridge had snapped off, CBC News reported.

The bolts would be subjected to “special testing” and the grade of the steel analyzed, he added.

Similar bolts are in place in another section of the bridge, Chaput said, adding that workers are watching for movement from underneath the bridge.

Mark Green, a professor of structural engineering at Queen's University in Kingston, told the news agency that the bridge failure is “unusual.” He, too, pointed to the cold weather as a contributing factor.

"We always do have to bear in mind—whenever constructing in [northern climates],” he said, “to really make certain that we think doubly about what the effects of the cold climate are, and not to underestimate it."

He explained that bolts and steel can become more brittle at low temperature and that cables may shorten in colder temperatures, but with proper planning and engineering, there should be no problems.

Hatch Mott MacDonald
Hatch Mott MacDonald

High temperatures in the area measured in the negative mid teens, feeling close to -24 C (-12 F) in Nipigon at the time of the bridge failure, leading some to suspect that the bolts may have become brittle in the low temperatures.

While the Nipigon Bridge is the first cable stay bridge in the country, Green adds that the weather isn’t the reason  this style of bridge isn’t more common in the country.

"The reason we don't have more cable stay bridges in Ontario is because they are ideal for longer crossings, and we don't have many of those longer crossings."

Nipigon River Bridge Project

While many reports indicated that the bridge would remain closed indefinitely, The Weather Network indicated that one lane had been reopened as of Monday morning. The bridge remained open to pedestrians despite the failure.

The Nipigon River Bridge currently carries traffic in two directions; however, it is part of a $106-million “twinning” project—an identical structure will be built to carry eastbound traffic while the existing bridge will support westbound travel, The New York Times reported.

Work on the eastbound lanes continues and is expected to be wrap up in 2017.

The construction is part of a plan to expand the highway and to prevent the failure of a single bridge from shutting down travel across Canada, the Times said.

With no alternative east-west routes, one community declared a state of emergency and set up shelters were established for stranded travelers. The only other route for drivers to consider is a long detour south of Lake Superior through the United States, the Times reported.

The original crossing, built in the 1930s, is being demolished. It was not clear if it could be returned to service during this travel emergency, reports said.


Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; Bridges; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Failure analysis; Inspection; Latin America; North America; Quality Control; Steel; Weathering steel

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