The Norman Wells pipeline is an 869 km long, small diameter, buried, ambient temperature, oil pipeline operated by Enbridge Pipeline (NW) Inc. in the discontinuous permafrost zone of northwestern Canada. Since operation began in 1985, average oil temperatures entering the line have been maintained slightly below 0°C, initially through constant chilling year round and since 1993 through a seasonal cycling of temperatures through a range from −4 to +9°C. At one location, 5 km from the inlet at Norman Wells, on level terrain in an area of widespread permafrost, uplift of a 20 m segment of line was observed in the early 1990s. The uplift gradually increased and by 1997 the pipe was exposed 0.5 m above the ground surface.
Detailed studies at the site have included field investigations of terrain and thermal conditions, repeated pipe and ground surface elevation surveys, and annual Geopig surveys. The field work has revealed that the section of line was buried in low density soils, thawed to depths of 4 m on-right-of-way, and not subjected to complete refreezing in winter. The thaw depths are related to surface or near-surface flows from a nearby natural spring, as well as to the development of a thaw bulb around the pipe in the cleared right-of-way. Icings indicative of perennial water flow occur commonly at this location in the winter.
The pipe experienced annual cycles of heave and settlement (on the order of 0.5 m) due to seasonal freezing and thawing within the surrounding low density soils. The pipe reached its highest elevation at the end of each winter freezing season, and its lowest elevation at the end of the summer thaw period. Superimposed on this heave/settlement cycle was an additional step-like cycle of increasing pipe strain related to thermal expansion and contraction of the pipe. A remedial program was initiated in the winter of 1997–98 in order to curtail the cumulative uplift of the pipe, reduce the increasing maximum annual pipe strain and ensure pipe safety. A 0.5 m cover of sandbags and coarse rock was placed over the exposed pipe segment. Continued pipe elevation monitoring and annual Geopig surveys have indicated that both seasonal heave/settlement and strains have been reduced subsequent to the remedial loading. Introduction of a gravel berm has also altered both the surrounding hydrologic and ground thermal regimes.