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Release: Nov. 15, 2000

UI engineer finds South American link in winter highway maintenance

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- South America is not what most Iowans envision when driving on icy highways.

But that's exactly the part of the world that comes to mind for Wilfrid Nixon, chair of the winter maintenance committee of the Transportation Research Board, a branch of the National Research Council (NRC).

That's because Nixon, a University of Iowa civil and environmental engineering professor, spent this past summer in the Southern Hemisphere examining snow and ice removal methods used in the Andes Mountains as part of a research trip jointly funded by the United States and Argentina. The trip also included his making suggestions for improvement, such as the use of pre-moistened salt chemicals designed to adhere to pavement better than conventional salt and sand mixtures. Nixon says that the trip showed that international cooperation in sharing knowledge of winter highway maintenance is growing.

"The mountain passes between Chile and Argentina are critical to the growth of tourism and trade between countries in that region," he says. "The main, and only fully paved, pass between Chile and Argentina -- the Paso Christo Redentor in the province of Mendoza, which connects the cities of Mendoza, Argentina, and Santiago, Chile -- was closed for more than two weeks this past winter. The Vialidad Nacional, Argentina's national highway agency, was seeking ideas to allow them to work more effectively and efficiently on their winter maintenance."

"I, and my fellow travelling partner, Rick Nelson of the Nevada Department of Transportation, provided some of that help and guidance," says Nixon. "The mountain passes of Argentina get heavy snow falls of up to six feet or more in a storm and these may be compounded by drifting snow and by avalanches. Lack of visibility on these roads due to blowing snow can make travel extremely hazardous. They also experience problems with compacted snow and ice forming on the road -- this sort of snow and ice is extremely difficult to remove from the highway surface."

The key to improving winter highway maintenance in Iowa and abroad lies in increasing international cooperation, says Nixon, who last year ran a successful international winter highway maintenance class over the Internet.

"The folks who do the work in the Andes Mountains are extremely dedicated people, who work very hard in what could generously be described as "trying" conditions. A few straightforward steps would help their efforts enormously, and we hope to be able to work with them to bring these needed changes about. A key finding of the trip to date has been the need to ensure that people are effectively linked with colleagues around the world who face similar problems. A problem is much easier to handle, if you know others face the same difficulty and can fix it," he says.