Governments weigh deicing methodsHumans have armed themselves in the battle against Mother Nature’s icy storms. Some use shovels. Some use snow blowers. But nothing seems more powerful than salt. A snowstorm dropped record amounts of snow on the mid-Atlantic recently, closing shops and inhibiting travel. Other regions of the country, including the Northwest and the Midwest, have been pummeled by snow and ice this winter.
By: By Ilana E. Strauss, Scripps Howard Foundation Wire, The Jamestown Sun
WASHINGTON — Humans have armed themselves in the battle against Mother Nature’s icy storms. Some use shovels. Some use snow blowers. But nothing seems more powerful than salt.
A snowstorm dropped record amounts of snow on the mid-Atlantic recently, closing shops and inhibiting travel. Other regions of the country, including the Northwest and the Midwest, have been pummeled by snow and ice this winter.
Most areas of the country use road salt, pellets of sodium chloride, to melt the snow. However, with the mounting evidence suggesting road salt can hurt the environment, other alternatives have sprung into being, including beet juice and sand.
“Every product is going to have its pros and its cons,” said Laura Fay, research scientist at the Western Transportation Institute in Bozeman, Mont.
Some bio-based products use corn or beet juice, usually mixed with road salt, to melt snow.
They are using products that would otherwise be thrown away, Fay said.
On the other hand, even these products can affect the environment.
“It’s basically a carbohydrate,” Fay said. Products like these are a potential food source for bacteria. Using them usually still means applying chlorides to the environment, she said.
Missouri, which averages from 2 to 24 inches a year, depending on the region, uses Geomelt, a deicer made from a byproduct of turning sugar beets into sugar, said Tim Jackson, a maintenance liaison engineer at the Missouri Department of Transportation.
MODOT found the product “very effective in helping the salt work in lower temperatures,” Jackson said. That makes it possible to use less road salt.
“It’s spreading rather well across the state,” he said.
It’s possible to use anti-icing products that prevent ice and snow from bonding with roadway before snowstorms hit.
“I’m very pro using anti-icing and deicing,” Fay said.
Deicing products make it easier to clear snow off the roads later.
“I think that’s one of the best ways not only to save on product and money but also to reduce impact on the environment,” she said.
Departments of transportation need equipment to use and hold the products, so deicing can be expensive.
“A lot of it just comes down to finances,” Fay said.
Road salt, small white pellets that are applied after a snow storm, is the cheapest and most commonly used deicer.
“In the absence of applying any deicer at all to roadways, road salt is probably the best choice when municipalities evaluate environmental impact with economics and budgets,” said Eric Benbow, a professor of biology at the University of Dayton (Ohio). Benbow has published research on the effects of road salt on aquatic life.
Road salt clearly affects the environment, but “the extent and magnitude isn’t really well known,” he said.
Chris Truncale, office manager of the Caribou, Maine, Public Works Department, said the city uses magnesium chloride, another type of salt, and road salt to melt winter snow. Caribou experiences some of the most extreme snowfall in the U.S., averaging 112 inches a year.
“The road temperature gets so cold up here that the roads will literally freeze solid,” he said.
They use road salt because it “melts right through,” he said. At $50 to $80 a ton, salt is cheaper than most alternatives. Calcium chloride can sell for anywhere from double to 10 times that, as can Geomelt.
Some governments are using sand as a more natural way to maintain winter roads. Sand doesn’t melt snow or ice, but it creates a hard surface with friction, making it easier to drive.
States including Washington and Kansas have opted to use sand, sometimes with salt and sometimes on its own.
Unfortunately, some of that sand washes into waterways, Benbow said.
“Sand actually disrupts stream life,” he said. “There are serious balancing issues.”
So what should
Most scientists agree that something must be done to make roads usable in the winter, Benton said.
If governments don’t use something to clear the roads, “you’re certainly going to have a lot of accidents,” Benton said. “You have to do something about it.”
Ultimately, it’s a local decision. Not enough research has been done to determine a “best” deicer, or even to help individual regions figure out what choice is best for them, said Xianming Shi, associate research professor of civil engineering at Montana State University.
Specifically what to do depends on factors including the number of vehicles on the road in the area and the local Department of Transportation’s budget, Fay said.
“There are no easy answers,” she said. “There’s no silver bullet out there.”