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Early Summer Heat Wave Buckling Pavement

By July 2, 2012 July 8th, 2014 No Comments

The Weather Channel predicted above-average warmth for the Southwest, Midwest, Great Lakes and Northeast back in April (of 2012). The fact that highway pavement is buckling in all those places from heat – already in June – is proving that forecast to be on the money.

That’s because scorching summertime temperatures in the 90s and 100s (Fahrenheit – in Celsius that’s about 32 to 38 degrees C and higher) have come early to each of these regions. Already by mid-June, municipalities from Oklahoma to Pennsylvania began dealing with sudden roadway eruptions, caused when the expansion of concrete pavement under extreme temperatures forces sections to buckle. When the first heavy vehicle rolls over those buckles, the pavement crumbles and you get the summer version of a pothole. Asphalt pavement offers a different phenomenon, that of trapped water in sublayers under pavement. Under extreme heat conditions, trapped moisture that cooks under the roadway can literally explode – quite like steam blowing the lid off a pressure cooker.

One of the first example of heat-induced potholes is from north of the border, in Toronto. The temperatures cracked 34C (that’s 93F) already on June 21, the highest such reading on that date in 60 years. To Texans who endured 40 straight days of 100-degreeF (38C) and higher temperatures in the summer of 2011, that may seem like a reprieve. But when your ‘Leafs are only a few weeks off the ice, it’s pretty tough on the people and their cars. The Toronto Star reported that two lanes on the 401 at Avenue Road were closed that afternoon when a 30-centimeter (11 inches) section had buckled up. It took the Ministry of Transportation two hours to “grind down the heaved highway,” according to the paper.

But most of the action is happening south, where the heat wave is currently concentrated. Here is a roundup of reports in the Midwest and East:

Iowa – The state Department of Transportation issued a warning published in the Quad City Times back in July 2011, explaining that a combination of wet weather alternating with heat are the combination that leads to asphalt blow ups. This year, the Spencer Daily Reporter in Clay County, Iowa reported exploding asphalt already in mid-June.

Michigan – The problems with heat affected some very serious and experienced drivers at the Michigan International Speedway. The Toledo Blade interviewed Dale Earnhardt, Jr. who shared sentiments with other NASCAR drivers in the Quicken Loans 400 on June 17. The racing organization required tire changes at mid-race, which drivers resisted although it did allow them to assess the shape of their tire tread. They found blistering, due to both road temperatures and new pavement, which enabled faster speeds. Earnhardt told Speed Channel TV his tires felt “like they were six years old. This ain’t cool.”

Missouri – The CBS-TV affiliate in St. Louis reported that a MoDOT (Missouri Department of Transportation) maintenance engineer says it’s difficult to predict where pavement blowups will happen in advance. The news show cites such road deterioration events as a “dangerous problem.”

Oklahoma – In Romona, a small town in Washington County in the northeast corner of the state, concrete was reported to be buckling on June 26. According to KJRH-TV, damage to sections of US 75 required several days of repair work. The state DOT spokesperson explained, “concrete moves and expands. This area near Romona happened at a joint.” A lot was learned in the heat waves of 2011, the reporter explained.

Pennsylvania – A PennDOT spokesperson told the Montgomery County Times-Herald that portions of Route 422 buckled on June 20, forcing emergency repairs and lane closures. He explained these pavement breakdowns are “not terribly unusual on older concrete beds where you have days of 90-degree temps.”

Wisconsin – The Fox-TV affiliate in Wausau reports that “authorities across central Wisconsin are receiving reports about pavement buckling on roads and highways due to high temperatures.” In one case, both US 10 westbound lanes in Portage County were closed for repairs on June 9. Local roads in Marathon County were also affected by pavement buckling and required repair work.

So how will the temperatures – and roads – fare as the summer wears on? The Weather Channel says “Get ready for a hot summer from the Desert Southwest into the nation’s heartland.” In June-August 2012, we should expect “the most above-average warmth to focus from the nation’s CornBelt to the southern Rockies and Desert Southwest. Above-average warmth is also expected into the Great Lakes and Northeast.” The Southeast (including Florida) and the West Coast should expect cooler than average summer weather.

That may be good news for motorists in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. But for those who live in heat-affected regions, buckle-up: Buckling concrete and exploding asphalt may be in store.