ARCHIVED - NRC's Cold Stuff Connection (Part I): Snow Research

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February 06, 2006— Ottawa, Ontario

NRC's Cold Stuff Connection

Snow Research

  Ice Research  
  Even More Ice Research  

Canadians have a love/hate relationship with snow and ice. Whether you enjoy outdoor winter activities or dread commuting in dicey weather, snow and ice are major parts of life for most Canadians, especially at this time of year. For many decades, NRC has taken an active and important part in research involving snow and ice. This first of two "cold stuff" articles summarizes NRC's snow research activities and the second one on ice research will be published tomorrow.

NRC institutes dedicate time, expertise and resources pursuing and perfecting solutions to diverse snow and ice-related problems. Over the years, this research has ranged from protecting Canadians from avalanches to studying the effects of snow and ice on structures and transportation. NRC even has special facilities to test our northern conditions.

Knowledge sharing is a major part of NRC's contributions. The NRC Institute for Research in Construction (NRC-IRC) publishes useful resources like the National Building Code and the Canadian Building Digest which provide valuable construction guidance and standards. These publications cover topics like Snow Loads on Roofs, among others.

In 1947, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) approached the NRC Division of Mechanical Engineering to help resolve a problem. The RCMP's mandate included patrolling Canada's far North and establishing law and order during the "gold rush" in the Yukon. A faster and lighter dog sled was required to manoeuvre across snowy northern terrain.

NRC quickly obliged and conducted tests and studies on a full-size model sled. It was determined that the RCMP could apply a synthetic plastic-like resin material called laminated bakelite to the sled's skis instead of stopping to apply messy, cold water in order to ice the sled runners. This improved version of the dog sled was used by the RCMP into the 1950s.

RCMP dog sled
RCMP dog sled


From 1956 to 1991, researchers studied life-threatening and infrastructure damaging snow – avalanches. At NRC offices in Vancouver and a NRC research facility in Rogers Pass, B.C., researchers helped with the construction of avalanche prone areas of the Trans-Canada highway. They also contributed to a better understanding of avalanche control mechanisms and hazard evaluation.

Peter Schaerer , a former NRC avalanche researcher who received the Order of Canada in 2000, was at the forefront of Canada's avalanche safety for more than forty years. He also co-founded the Canadian Avalanche Association. Internationally renowned avalanche training courses developed in the 1970s, by NRC and the British Columbia Institute of Technology, served as the basis for programs offered by the Canadian Avalanche Association Training Schools.

Night vision goggles
Night vision goggles

Helping Pilots See

In the past decade or so, the NRC Institute for Aerospace Research (NRC-IAR) has completed more than 500 hours of flight testing of night vision goggles and other systems meant to improve pilots' ability to see. By combining technical and psychological expertise, researchers are using helmet-mounted lenses and visors to improve the way critical information is displayed to pilots in poor weather conditions (e.g. search and rescue missions in a snowstorm) or in the dark.

Classified Military Project

During the Second World War, Canada was asked to help design a new type of military all-terrain vehicle (later dubbed the Weasel) for use in snowy, muddy, swampy and rugged European terrain. This classified wartime project drew upon a variety of NRC expertise and even saw NRC researchers develop a prototype tracking system and specialized rubber to allow the military vehicle to move easily and speedily across snow.

The "Weasel"

The Weasel had to perform in a wide range of conditions and had to withstand being parachuted from an aircraft. It was originally intended for the First Special Service Force (better known as the Devil's Brigade), an elite joint US-Canadian combat team with expertise in skiing, mountain climbing, parachuting, as well as more traditional armed forces skills like weaponry and demolitions. Nearly 15,000 Weasels were produced incorporating contributions from Canadian, American and British researchers and engineers for the unique vehicle's design. Built by Studebaker Co., the production version incorporated a track that was nearly identical to the original design by NRC. Over the years, the Weasel design has inspired many other all terrain vehicles and has helped Arctic and Antarctic explorers in extreme conditions.

NRC's Earliest Snow Research

NRC's snow research dates back to the 1930's. One of Canada's most prolific inventors, NRC's George Klein became "Canada's leading expert in snow cover physics and mechanics". He was also "one of the key and uniquely influential figures in the creation of the international system of classifying ground-cover snow, and, through this, one of the fathers of the decades of snow related research and development that followed." – Excerpted from George Klein: The Great Inventor (available from NRC Research Press).

Large parts of Canada's vast land mass can only be reached by aircraft; they are otherwise inaccessible by road or railway because of our thousands of lakes and rivers. Combine that with the fact that our winters are cold and you have a problem. George Klein loved to solve problems and worked diligently at researching and designing aircraft skis. "In the first half of the 20th century, few people in the world, if any, had more impact on the scientific study and design of aircraft skis than George Klein", according to Klein's biographer, NRC's Dick Bourgeois-Doyle.

Recruited by NRC in 1929 to work on wind tunnel research and aeronautical studies, Klein helped design and build NRC's first ever "nine-foot" wind tunnel. Canada's aviation manufacturing industry was in full flight in the early 1930s, but there were numerous problems with skis, wheels and floats. NRC's wind tunnel became an invaluable tool in assessing and creating better and safer products.

Klein also invented specific instruments to help with his research. The "towing dynamometer" was built for skis on snow to measure characteristics such as resistance, load bearing and also to correlate these measurements with speed, form and proportions of the ski bottoms. Other inventions included a "photographic microscope" to study snow crystals and structure and a "snow recording penetrometer" to measure the compacting of snow when a ski moved over a snowy surface.

NRC's George Klein
NRC's George Klein

In September of 1939, George Klein presented his ground breaking snow research findings to the International Commission for Snow and Glaciers in Washington, D.C. He was now a leading expert in his field by single handedly developing the scientific basis for the design of aircraft skis that worked well on snow, undoubtedly saving many lives in the process.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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