Plenty of life

Following polar vortex, officials ready for more

Bill Wilson; Editorial Director / April 30, 2015

In most parts of the country, the average lifespan of a snowflake increased dramatically last winter. Public works officials are hoping the numbers are not doctored in 2014-15.

An unforgiving polar vortex inflated snowfall totals and dropped average temperatures, taxing even the agencies built to handle the worst of cold seasons. With a mild summer winding down, many are wondering if the polar vortex ever really left, and are preparing for its second coming. 

According to the Farmers’ Almanac, which accurately predicted last winter’s polar plunge, cold and stormy weather is on the horizon but the severity is a bit unclear. With the Pacific Ocean continuing to warm, some are saying an El Niño could take center stage this winter. The Farmers’ Almanac is predicting bitterly cold temperatures to make a return to the Great Plains and Great Lakes states. However, if an El Niño comes into play, the season could warm slightly.

“If it does continue to form it could throw a possible curveball into our long-range forecast, but we pretty much see another cold winter on tap for three-quarters of our nation,” Sandi Duncan, managing editor for the Farmers’ Almanac, told Roads & Bridges. “We are basically saying that ‘shivery and shovelry’ are back and the colder temperatures we pretty much see in the middle of the country, but we also see a very stormy and very wet winter on the East Coast and depending on the temperatures that could mean more snow than rain.”

The Southeast is looking at a chilly and wet winter, while the Pacific Northwest could experience below normal temperatures and average precipitation. The southern portion of the country (N.M., Okla., Texas, Ark. and La.) is in for a brisk and wet November to March, but an El Niño could bring more rain to the drought-stricken Southwest.

“Sometimes El Niños really affect the winter weather and sometimes they don’t,” said Duncan. “I don’t think it will make that much of a difference, but it is going to depend on how it forms over the next several months. It usually affects the weather between November and January, and we have had some powerful ones in the past.”

If the polar vortex outmuscles the El Niño, that could affect the weather as early as September in some states.

“It does look like it is going to be a long winter,” said Duncan. “In the news right now they are talking about this polar vortex possibly happening at the end of September, and if you look at some of our weather predictions you will see that we are calling for some bitterly cold conditions to come to the Great Lakes and lower plains toward the end of September.”

According to a recent Roads & Bridges survey, most believe last winter was a fluke. Over 61% indicated last year’s snow accumulation was more than average, but more than 68% believe the 2014-15 campaign will be more normal than unusual. 

Going without a break

January is usually a light month for the town of Lexington, Mass., in terms of winter activity. However, the weight of the 2013-14 season never eased. Lexington had nine events in December, eight in January, eight in February and one in March. Of the 25 total events, 10 produced plowable snow. The 16-year snowfall average is 50 in., and in 2013-14 Lexington was covered in 72.5 in. 

“Usually in this area of the country you get a break in the weather,” Marc Valenti, superintendent, Highways, Equipment & Drains for Lexington, told Roads & Bridges. “They call it the January thaw here. We did not experience that last year. It basically seemed like we did not get a break at all.”

The people of Lexington expect winter maintenance crews to go all-out, too. Bicyclists are prominent in the town, which means roads have to be cleared no matter how much precipitation falls. On top of 95 center lane-miles (the state handles 45 center lane-miles), Valenti’s crew is responsible for 64 miles of sidewalk and all other areas around municipal buildings and schools, including parking lots. When it’s locked in anti-icing mode, Lexington’s public works department handles all of the work, but when snow has to be plowed, 50% of the activity is contracted out.

“It is a very, very high level of service here,” said Valenti. “If we get just an inch or an inch and a half of snow and the sun comes out 15 minutes after the snow has fallen people expect the roads to be in superb condition so they can ride their bikes to work.

“So there was just a lot of treatment [in 2013-14], which is what is taxing on the guys because you are making sure that everybody is safe for the morning, daytime and evening commutes. You are running all of the time.”

Lexington prefers to treat roads prior to an event, and last year they went with a new process—spraying salt with a mixture of magnesium chloride and molasses and brine. The move helped Valenti avoid the nightmare scenario of running out of salt. He has 2,000 tons worth of salt-storage capacity, and there were times last winter when the town was down to its last 100 tons. 

“On at least half a dozen occasions there were only a couple of loads of salt,” he said. “We were sweating it. We would get a couple hundred tons in and then all of a sudden were back down to 100 tons after we made a treatment.”

Valenti credited a strong relationship with his salt supplier, which owns its own quarry, in making the winter season a little less turbulent. Price gouging was not an issue, however, he does see the cost going up heading into 2014-15, and he is not alone. According to the R&B survey, 68.6% said the price of salt is more compared to last year, and 64.2% said the same for deicing and anti-icing chemicals. 

Having the ability to produce its own brine also aided the town of Lexington. New in 2013-14 was the ability to blend the mag chloride and molasses with the brine. Valenti also added an oatmeal spreader, which allows for a 70% solid and 30% liquid blend, and plans on using a second one this season. 

Lexington has a total of eight plow/spreader trucks, and at one point last year lost a quarter of its fleet to repairs, but the roads were still able to be serviced. A ninth truck was used strictly for liquid applications in 2013-14, but it will be replaced this year and will most likely be a plow/spreader. 

Valenti also has made good use out of composite blades, which are a combination of carbide steel and rubber. With traditional blades, Lexington was replacing them as many as three times a season. Two of the composite blades have lasted two winters already. 

“We are going to concentrate on more education prior to the season, too,” said Valenti. “We were training supervisors, and now we are sending rank and file to plowing seminars as well to get them on board with the whole theory as to why we do what we do.” R&B

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