Vehicles, grooming, and other factors affecting snowroad longevity in Yellowstone National Park
Nelson, Molly McKellar
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In winter, the National Park Service (NPS) at Yellowstone grooms snow that builds up on the park roads, making 'snowroads' passable by snowmobiles and snowcoaches. The NPS has recently allowed experimental snowcoaches on low-pressure tires (LPTs) in addition to traditional tracks. As they consider a permanent policy on these LPTS, they want to understand these vehicles' impacts on snowroads compared with those of traditional tracked vehicles and snowmobiles. They also want to know how to optimize other operations (e.g., grooming) to maintain quality roads that support safe travel through the park. This two-year field study investigated the snowroad quality in the park and factors influencing this quality. The approach involved data collection on both parkwide road conditions and individual vehicle passes. Both controllable and non-controllable factors were considered to provide information on their relative influence. Parkwide road quality analysis involved collecting GPS data on grooming activity, weather data from existing stations, road depth through radar measurements, traffic counts from motion-sensor cameras, hardness data, and snow sample analysis. The vehicle-by-vehicle impact study involved both subsurface and surface measurements in the road. Load cells, accelerometers, a high-speed, high-definition camera, a penetrometer, and a 'profilometer' provided measurements. Data analysis combined with existing literature provided insights into best practices for the NPS. Parkwide, snowroads harden throughout the season, with temperatures and traffic load being contributing factors. Grooming results in a harder road if snow disaggregation is followed by compaction, and with a longer set time between grooming and traffic. Individual vehicles' impacts are driven by surface interaction rather than motion at depth in the snowroad. On hard, groomed snowroads, both tracked and LPT snowcoaches can form ruts, but tracked vehicles continue to dig ruts deeper whereas LPT coaches' ruts level out and stop deepening with subsequent passes. This seems to be because LPTs form ruts primarily through compaction and tracked vehicles through snow displacement. Reduced tire pressures reduce rut formation and can harden the road. Results from this study demonstrate that LPT coaches should not be disallowed from Yellowstone based on road impacts. Other results will inform NPS operations to optimize grooming practices.