Cold, warm, then cold again: How Montreal's unseasonable weather is taking a toll on its infrastructure
On Feb. 7, frozen streets thawed and icicles began to drip as temperatures climbed from –15 C to 2 C.
On Feb. 10, slush-covered roads hardened to ice as the temperature dove from 5 C to –8 C.
And on Monday, rain turned to sleet then to snow as temperatures plunged more than 10 degrees, from 4 C to –14 C in less than 24 hours.
Temperatures in Montreal have oscillated on either side of the freezing mark at least a dozen times so far this winter, according to a CBC review of weather records.
The dipping and rising of the mercury is bringing mild weather to the city followed by bitter cold spells, but rapid cooling and warming cycles also stress concrete and asphalt infrastructure, leading to more cracks in overpasses and potholes on roads.
"This year the number of freeze-thaw cycles is more frequent, particularly in the [Montreal] metropolitan area, with temperatures rising more often above the freezing mark," said André Cantin, a meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC).
January was a particularly mild month, Cantin said, with the average temperature five degrees higher than normal. Even February has so far been mild, Cantin said, aside from a two-day stretch of near record-breaking cold.
When temperatures rise in winter, ice and snow melt, sending water seeping into crevices in asphalt roads, concrete overpasses and conduits. When temperatures then fall below freezing, some of that water freezes — expanding as it changes state, creating cracks and fissures.
Engineers have long known that freeze-thaw cycles degrade concrete and lead to potholes in roads. It's partly why infrastructure has a service life that takes into account the number of freeze-thaw cycles the material can endure.
Cantin said that the fluctuations between warm and cold, mild and frigid, cannot all be blamed on climate change, but winters like this one are likely to become more common as global average temperatures climb.
Montreal research into freezing patterns
Montreal researchers recently used data from satellites to help them track when the soil in Quebec is frozen and when it isn't so they can understand how climate change is affecting freeze-thaw cycles. They predict that as global temperatures rise, the ground will thaw and refreeze more frequently in the Montreal area — possibly even twice as often.
This will disturb soil conditions and stress infrastructure, leading to earlier failures in water mains and roads, according to Ali Nazemi, an associate professor in Concordia's department of building, civil, and environmental engineering and one of the study's co-authors.
"If it is frozen in the night, and is unfrozen in the morning, that actually creates pressure in the soil that can be devastating," Nazemi said.
Nazemi said older infrastructure that is nearing the end of its service life is particularly susceptible to the wear of the freeze-thaw cycle.
"When you take into account that our infrastructure under the soil is aging in Quebec and many of them are overdue (for maintenance) already, that can actually increase a lot of vulnerabilities," he said.
Andrew Komar, an engineer with a Ph.D. from McGill University whose research focused on testing the effects of freeze-thaw deterioration on concrete, said the effect of temperature swings caused by climate change is likely to stress concrete infrastructure.
"In comparison to when you have solid months of you know, –20 or whatever, now you're getting more of the freezing and thawing," he said. "Each cycle, each time that you have water that's there and then it freezes — partially or completely — that's another source of damage."
The damage has consequences. Winters with more freeze-thaw periods tend to create more potholes in Montreal. Komar said freeze-thaw can wreak havoc on streets as water seeps into space in roads and freezes, expanding and widening cracks, which in turn allows more water to get in and freeze.
It's a cycle that, when repeated, creates large potholes that puncture tires, dent car rims and damage vehicles.
In 2022, the city of Montreal paid a record $103,157 in compensation to drivers whose cars were damaged by potholes.
The city blames the increase in claims in part on weather conditions that are favourable to the formation of potholes and "the rise in the number of cars with low-profile tires."
Last year, city workers filled 96,800 potholes, a spokesperson said, at a cost of $2.8 million. This year, the city anticipates having to repair as many as 110,000 potholes with $3.5 million set aside in the budget.