As numerous states across the U.S. continue to deal with huge amounts of snow, what are the environmental effects of plowing, collecting, de-icing?
If you live in a region that has several inches of snow fall each winter, you might be asking yourself, “What happens to all of it at the end of the season?” Understandably, it melts away as the sun becomes stronger, but where does it go while winter is still in session? How about after a big storm?
What is Snow Farming?The phrase may be new to you if you don’t live in an area that receives an ample amount of snow, but it’s the norm in areas like New England. For example, the storms that hit Boston this season have made it the second snowiest winter on record with 99.9 inches as of February 2015.
As a result of storms like Juno and Marcus, which dropped multiple ahfeet of snow on the city, plowers have been forced to turn to snow farms to handle the mess. But what exactly is a snow farm?
A snow farm is a wide-open area where trucks can take piles of snow and dump them out of the way of the public. Snow farms, however, are not as picturesque as they might sound. These plots of land are often designated as necessary, meaning they may be an office building parking lot one day and an open city lot the next.
Seeing these vast spaces is comforting to plowers who have trouble finding an area for the snow. However, snow farms filled up fast during the winter of 2015 for Boston. In turn, the city had to consider dumping snow into its harbor – a move that was frowned upon by environmentalists who were aware of the contamination risks.
In the end, snow melters were able to reduce the amount of snow that was consuming existing farms, eliminating the need to dump a majority of it into the harbor.
Melting Away the ProblemWhile the sun is certainly a valuable tool when it comes to melting snow, it isn’t always enough to get rid of it, especially when it continues to fall from the sky. This is where melters come in, particularly during extremely snowy winters like the one that New England has seen.
Melters are large generator-powered machines that use hot water to effectively melt away snow. The water is then typically allowed to flow into storm drains, which keeps it from refreezing. However, melters are not always a viable option, especially in cash-strapped locations. One machine costs an average of $200,000 and uses 60 gallons of fuel per hour, making it a money guzzler and an environmental concern.
Mother Nature and Snow MeltingOnce the thermostat begins to rise, the official snow melting process begins – this is when Mother Nature takes over. However, there are stages of snow melting that go beyond early spring. Once the white stuff is gone on the ground, the melting is still happening -- you may just not see it every day.
Air temperature and the intensity of the sun are the two primary factors that impact the melting of snow. However, there are other factors that can play a role in the process – rain, wind and heat absorption are some of the few. Snow melts from top to bottom as heat converts snow particles into water. Then, gravity eventually pulls the water into the ground.
The beginning of the melting process is typically early spring. This is because daytime temperatures are warm enough for the snow to slightly melt. However, cool nighttime temperatures often slow down the process during this part of the year.
As spring transitions into summer, the amount of water produced by melting snow reaches it peak. It’s during this time that local streams, rivers and creeks also speed up as a result of the excess water. By the time summer is in full swing, all of the low level snow is melted.
Medium-to-high level snow continues to melt during this season. Summer is also the time when snow water begins to vaporize from the ground.
Snow and Ice in Bodies of WaterCold temperatures and snow have a direct impact on bodies of water such as lakes, rivers and streams. For instance, the Great Lakes are known to freeze during the winter – but what happens to all of this ice and snow?
Ice acts like a greenhouse on the surface of a lake, and as heat continues to penetrate the ice, the water below starts to warm. The ice and snow itself will begin to warm from the bottom, then work its way toward the top. As the warming continues, the eventually ice breaks apart.
Snow Removal and the EnvironmentAlthough the sun will likely help you remove snow over the course of the spring, there’s always the chance for a few more storms before winter ends. As you look to reduce your carbon footprint, keep the following tips in mind for snow removal.
First, invest in environmentally friendly ice melt substitutes that reduce the impact of runoff chemicals in nearby bodies of water. The Environmental Protection Agency has a list of de-icing products that you may want to consider for your home.
Next, think about using a snow blower that does not rely on diesel fuels. There are several battery, electric and hybrid power models now on the market that you can consider for your snow removal efforts. If you lack the financial means to purchase one of these items or are gung-ho about cutting your carbon footprint, opt for a good old shovel instead.
Finally, see if there is a snow removal service in your area that uses green practices. If this is not an option, encourage your public works department to utilize environmentally friendly de-icers to make your community a greener place.
While it can be challenging to deal with the complications of snow, there is always an eco friendly way to handle the matter. The next time you ask yourself, “Where does the snow go?” think about how you and your neighbors are currently getting rid of it. From here, you can strategize a way to cope with winter without sacrificing your local environment and wildlife.