Ice Breaking on the Rideau

  • Published on Apr 06 2012 |
  • This article is tagged as: storyteller

You truly know that spring is here when one can hear and see a gaggle of Canada Geese moving across the blue sky. When sap starts to drip from the maple trees and resilient annuals start to poke their heads out from their long winter slumber… For those living in the central/east area of Ottawa, another sign signifies the end of winter: the demolition of ice on the Rideau River.

A nine-kilometre stretch of the Rideau River is particularly prone to flooding, as water and ice attempt to make their way to the Ottawa River.  Without human intervention, water would possibly overflow the river banks, potentially causing water damage to many structures lining either side of the Rideau River.  Another concern as well is the potential impact of larger chunks of ice damaging bridges located on Sussex Dr., Rideau Falls.  For these reasons, varying forms of ice “clearance” work have been practiced since the 1880s. 

Currently, the City of Ottawa administers – with assistance from the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority – a two-step procedure to break up the winter ice. The first step taken is in order to determine the depth of the ice by using mechanical saws to slice long slots or “keys”.  Next city workers drill deep holes in where dynamite is inserted, then wired up for detonation.  This annual breaking up of Rideau River ice is quite costly and is accompanied with a set of environmental impacts and concerns. The use of explosives on one of our rivers affects its’ habitants.  Any explosive detonations to land or water ways, is disturbing for those concerned about the ongoing human impact to our natural resources.  Warranted concerns vary, from the residual pollution in the water, potential injury of workers, death of water habitants, noise pollution and the long term damage to homes and office buildings that are shaken by each explosion. 

During this annual breaking up of the ice in which the City of Ottawa uses powerful explosives, residents enjoying Stanley Park and specifically the off leash dog area, are warned to keep a safe distance away from the river banks as chunks of ice are blown some 50-100+ feet in the air in various directions. Habitants of this stretch of the Rideau River unfortunately are unable to do the same and many times there are unknown casualties beneath the waters.  As many may know TNT (Trinitrotoluene) is a material used that causes pollution where ever it is detonated and is considered by experts to be highly toxic. Further, residents who live along the Rideau River have notified the City of Ottawa for years about the significant noise pollution and the structural damage caused by years of vibrations from the explosives.

A welcome and more environmental friendly solution, which is now used been used by the City of Ottawa for several years is the Amphibex, a crab-like boat-tractor that breaks up thin ice. By adopting this method, many believe that the City of Ottawa and the Rideau River Conservation Authority have taken a step in the right direction. However, the varying types of pollution and long term damage still needs to be addressed in order for our City to make ice-breaking of one of our rivers an environmentally sound and sustainable practice.

Notably, perhaps our city can learn of a positive and environmentally friendly way from other municipalities in Canada.  Those who are responsible for ensuring the breaking of ice of the Red River, Winnipeg (which is also prone to flooding) manage to do so without the use of any explosives. The habitants of and around Red River are not forced to endure annual disruption, pollution, death or damage of/to their natural resources. Instead, the Manitoba government enlists the abilities of three amphibious excavators, a satellite which monitors ice thickness and two remote controlled Bobcat skidsteers ice-cutters. 

As you're enjoying the signs of spring, don't forget about one of the more unique events in preparation of spring in the Ottawa Valley - ice-breaking of the Rideau River, which we believe can be improved. 


The Daily Planet - Ice-breaking begins on Rideau Canal

BBC - Why Ottawa bombs its frozen rivers

The Globe and Mail - Why Ottawa needs to blow up the Rideau River every year

Winnepeg Free Press - Eye in sky to monitor river ice

UAlberta - [PDF]