Overdue or overblown?

May 1, 2015

Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts snowy winter, but some areas are in a funk

It has not been raining sideways in Charlotte, N.C., but Ken Hooker knows better than to get slapped in the face with the unexpected.

This is why the deputy streets superintendent for the city of Charlotte is gearing up for a 2013-14 winter season that could drop more precipitation than normal. Some in the region follow the science that uses the number of hurricanes in a year as a gauge for just how harsh the cold months will be. North Carolina has not experienced a storm with a rain-piercing eye, indicating the weather could be relatively tame over the next few months. Hooker, however, has still seen a few good soakings this summer to indicate that trend will continue.

“We are overdue here in Charlotte,” Hooker told Roads & Bridges. “It’s been a long time since we had a major ice storm, and I’m not one to predict things, but this could be a year coming up that we might see more ice than anything else, or it could be we get more snow and we have to plow more, or more separate events.”

Charlotte has never been prone to experience any hurricane of white powder, but must be prepared to keep the streets clear at all times. The average snowfall in Charlotte is just 3.5 in., but the record for one winter season is 22.9 in. in 1960, and 17.4 in. for one event, which happened in February 1902. 

“When we get the big storms it is usually because of moisture coming up from the Gulf [of Mexico], up through Alabama, into Georgia and South Carolina, and if you have that cold air pushing down from the north you can pretty much bet we are going to get something,” said Hooker.

Greenhouse guessing

The Old Farmer’s Almanac believes something is in store for much of the U.S. over the next six months, and it will come in the form of colder temperatures and snowier conditions. Two elements come into play. First, the Atlantic Ocean is in a very warm phase, which is why cities like Charlotte were getting drenched earlier this summer. In addition, sun-spot activity (magnetic storms on the surface of the sun) is at a low level, which usually translates into colder-than-normal temperatures.

“When cold air comes across the Ohio Valley and hits the influences of the Atlantic Ocean you have snow, storms,” Janice Stillman, editor of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which claims an 80% accuracy rate, told Roads & Bridges. “That gives rise to the idea that there will be a colder-than-normal winter and snowier-than-normal winter.”

The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which uses climatology and meteorology in addition to the solar science when formulating forecasts, is calling for cold and snowy conditions for South Carolina, North Carolina, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and parts of Georgia, Pennsylvania, Vermont and New Hampshire. In the Midwest, Minnesota, Iowa and parts of Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska will be hit with cold and snow, as will the state of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and portions of Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada. Only two zones, 6 (which covers central and northeast Illinois, most of the lower peninsula of Michigan, northern Indiana, northern Ohio, the northwest tip of Pennsylvania and southwest New York) and 11 (most of the state of Texas) are expected to take on mild conditions this winter. A portion of zone 12, which covers the northern tip of Texas, northeast New Mexico, southeast Colorado, southwest Kansas and the westernmost tip of Oklahoma, also is expected to see above-average temperatures. 

However, the whole idea of global warming is making the art of weather forecasting a bit hazy. The Old Farmer’s Almanac admits that the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has altered temperatures and precipitation to a certain degree. The publication has been under the belief that any time now the Earth would enter a decades-long cooler-than-normal period. 

“For the past couple of years in the general forecast we have allowed for that,” said Stillman. “While we do believe that this trend is possible, it may also be mitigated or influenced by the presence of greenhouse gases.”

Snow shower events will be prominent during the 2013-14 winter for much of the U.S., but the Old Farmer’s Almanac is predicting only a few hardcore storms. Both the Pacific Northwest and Upper Midwest could experience one in December and another in January, but the most activity could be seen in the Northeast, where the Old Farmer’s Almanac believes heavy snow events will hit the area as early as November, twice in December and a fourth time in February. The Atlantic Corridor (February), Appalachians (February) and Intermountain (March) zone also could get hit with snowstorms. 

“If we are not spot-on-day we are often spot-on-trend,” claimed Stillman.

Week to prepare

So operators can be as spot-on as possible, the city of Charlotte holds Snow Week at the beginning of November. All the spreaders are loaded and the equipment is tested. Maintenance staff also is brought in to tend to any repairs, and safety videos are shown to all the drivers. Operators also work their route to catch any changes to the landscape, and the highlight of the week is the rodeo course at the city vehicle operations center.

“We make cul-de-sacs and areas where they have to drive vehicles through cones,” said Hooker.

Charlotte, which is responsible for plowing 857 center-line miles, does not have to refamiliarize itself with its salt supply. Due to last winter’s inactivity, Hooker knows he is loaded and will help out neighboring cities if the situation arises. Charlotte also is relying more on salt brine in its operations and does have an anti-icing program. The city purchased another salt-brine dispenser at the APWA North American Snow Conference this year, which was held in Charlotte, and has a total of nine located in three maintenance yards. Hooker has the ability to produce 10,000 gal of salt brine and 5,000 gal of calcium chloride.

At his disposal, Hooker has 32 tandem-axle trucks equipped with both spreaders and plows. The fleet covers 16 routes, which are prioritized 1 through 4. 

In addition to the salt-brine-dispenser purchase, Hooker also brought in two new triaxle dump trucks to help with winter-maintenance operations. 

Freeze and thaw

Warren Nicholishen, superintendent of operations and road maintenance for the city of Kawartha Lakes, Ontario, does not want to come out and say global warming is responsible for mild temperatures over the last two or three winter seasons, but the trend is changing the way snow fighters think. 

“I track everything, and you can look at it at first glance and say, ‘Gee, it’s warming up,’ and it is from my observations, but as far as attributing that to global warming, you could probably draw a line there. I just don’t know if I’m the guy to draw that line,” he told Roads & Bridges.

According to Nicholishen, who also is part of the 420-municipality Ontario Good Roads Association, deep-freeze periods have shortened. In the past they would last for four or five weeks, but recently they have been reduced to about 10 days, and the temperatures have not been as harsh (−7 or −8°C compared to −15°C).

Every municipality in Ontario is strongly encouraged to adopt the Minimum Maintenance Standards, which offers guidelines on winter-maintenance activities such as plowing and anti-icing. Nicholishen wants his staff to pay more attention to the actual surface temperature when deciding what material to use, when to use it and at what rate. Most of the 64 truck units, which are responsible for covering 3,000 lane-kilometers 24/7, come equipped with pavement sensors. Currently, either salt or a winter salt blend is used to clear snow, but there is hope that a full-fledged anti-icing program will be in place by next season. 

On average, between Nov. 1 and March 31, the city of Kawartha Lakes sees 60-70 events totaling about 100 cm of snow. However, the number of freeze-thaw cycles is on the rise, and those are creating an increase in maintenance duties. Crews have to go out and break up ice in ditches because culverts are filling up with ice, and in the summer more culvert inspections are needed because if there is not proper bedding potholes and bumps will begin to form. 

The price of salt has increased slightly. The city of Kawartha Lakes, which carries a $5.75 million winter-maintenance operating budget, is part of a nine-city co-op that shares about 140,000 metric tons of the product. Nicholishen also said the price of chemicals have flat-lined.

The city purchased 10 new tandem-axle trucks in 2012 and another five this year. 

“The fleet is adequate, but I think we are at a crossroads now where we are realizing a good portion of the fleet needs to be upgraded,” said Nicholishen. WM

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