More (Or Less) Road Salt

Emily Long

Less than a week after I posted my blog post about the environmental and health problems associated with road salt, the Boston Globe published an article about de-icing alternatives some Massachusetts communities are turning to. Boston has received almost 50 inches of snow this winter compared to a total of 17 inches on average around this time. We can only assume that it means we’re using record amounts of salt to combat all this snow. While it is difficult to say if the increased snowfall we’re seeing is directly related to climate change, increased temperatures tend to increase evaporation thus resulting in increased precipitation.  (In the Northeast, there has been a 5 to 10% increase in annual average precipitation since 1900.) More generally speaking, scientists are increasingly concerned about the link between global warming and anomalous winter weather (such as the bizarre snowstorms seen recently in the South). As such, it is encouraging to hear that towns are looking to more environmentally friendly alternatives to deal with our new weather conditions as the planet continues to warm.

Besides rock salt (sodium chloride), calcium chloride and magnesium chloride can be used in colder temperatures but unfortunately, they are significantly more expensive than the traditional rock salt. Instead a growing number of Massachusetts communities are returning to an age-old solution: brine. The mixture is a combination of rock salt and water. Applying brine before snow falls and ice forms on the roadway (known as “anti-icing”) can prevent snow and ice from sticking to roads. Unlike plain old rock salt, this stuff doesn’t bounce or get blown off the roads like we’ve all seen. As such it dramatically reduces the amount of salt used and the time it takes to remove snow and ice from the roads in turn saving towns money. A study done in Oregon and Washington state showed that anti-icing can decrease costs by more than 50% compared to conventional de-icing. And it reduces the amount of salt that gets into our drinking water and the negative impacts on the environment.

This yet again reinforces the idea that solutions that are good for the environment are often also good for people and the economy.

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12 Responses to “More (Or Less) Road Salt”

  1. Robert Evans

    In your article you state “In the Northeast, there has been a 5 to 10% increase in annual average precipitation since 1900.”

    I don’t understand the statement. It can’t mean there has been a 5 to 10% annual increase in rainfall; extrapolating backwards, it would make 1900 a desert. On the other hand, I don’t see why we would not know the average precipitation increase over the last century to within more precision than +/-5%

    • Emily Long

      Sorry about the confusion. Due to the high inter-annual variability of precipitation, it’s difficult to distinguish a consistent long-term trend from natural fluctuations- hence the uncertainty. In any case, you raise a very good point (and the 1900s was definitely not a desert!). It seems the NEICA report must have made a mistake and I am kicking myself for missing it! I should have written, “Compared to the 1900, average annual precipitation has increased by 5 to 10%.” Precipitation has NOT increased by 5 to 10% each year; rather in the past 100 years, we’ve seen a total increase of 5 to 10%.

  2. Robert Evans

    In your article you state “In the Northeast, there has been a 5 to 10% increase in annual average precipitation since 1900.”

    I don’t understand the statement. It can’t mean there has been a 5 to 10% annual increase in rainfall; extrapolating backwards, it would make 1900 a desert. On the other hand, I don’t see why we would not know the average precipitation increase over the last century to within more precision than +/-5%

    • Emily Long

      Sorry about the confusion. Due to the high inter-annual variability of precipitation, it’s difficult to distinguish a consistent long-term trend from natural fluctuations- hence the uncertainty. In any case, you raise a very good point (and the 1900s was definitely not a desert!). It seems the NEICA report must have made a mistake and I am kicking myself for missing it! I should have written, “Compared to the 1900, average annual precipitation has increased by 5 to 10%.” Precipitation has NOT increased by 5 to 10% each year; rather in the past 100 years, we’ve seen a total increase of 5 to 10%.

  3. Robert Evans

    In your article you state “In the Northeast, there has been a 5 to 10% increase in annual average precipitation since 1900.”

    I don’t understand the statement. It can’t mean there has been a 5 to 10% annual increase in rainfall; extrapolating backwards, it would make 1900 a desert. On the other hand, I don’t see why we would not know the average precipitation increase over the last century to within more precision than +/-5%

    • Emily Long

      Sorry about the confusion. Due to the high inter-annual variability of precipitation, it’s difficult to distinguish a consistent long-term trend from natural fluctuations- hence the uncertainty. In any case, you raise a very good point (and the 1900s was definitely not a desert!). It seems the NEICA report must have made a mistake and I am kicking myself for missing it! I should have written, “Compared to the 1900, average annual precipitation has increased by 5 to 10%.” Precipitation has NOT increased by 5 to 10% each year; rather in the past 100 years, we’ve seen a total increase of 5 to 10%.

  4. Robert Evans

    In your article you state “In the Northeast, there has been a 5 to 10% increase in annual average precipitation since 1900.”

    I don’t understand the statement. It can’t mean there has been a 5 to 10% annual increase in rainfall; extrapolating backwards, it would make 1900 a desert. On the other hand, I don’t see why we would not know the average precipitation increase over the last century to within more precision than +/-5%

    • Emily Long

      Sorry about the confusion. Due to the high inter-annual variability of precipitation, it’s difficult to distinguish a consistent long-term trend from natural fluctuations- hence the uncertainty. In any case, you raise a very good point (and the 1900s was definitely not a desert!). It seems the NEICA report must have made a mistake and I am kicking myself for missing it! I should have written, “Compared to the 1900, average annual precipitation has increased by 5 to 10%.” Precipitation has NOT increased by 5 to 10% each year; rather in the past 100 years, we’ve seen a total increase of 5 to 10%.

  5. I worked in the public sector for many years and can tell you that a great number of communities struggle with their “salting” policies. Some communities choose the “black roads” or “running water” approach to snow and ice control; X number of hours after a storm the roads must be clear down to asphalt. The alternatives, usually due to a mixture of finance, regulations and environmental consciousness, taken by some is to limit the use of salt dramatically in favor of sand. One common factor: No single alternative is favored by a majority of communities. Yet, all residents want their streets to be ice-free and passable. A tough assignment given limited resources and near unlimited pressure to please all sides.

  6. I worked in the public sector for many years and can tell you that a great number of communities struggle with their “salting” policies. Some communities choose the “black roads” or “running water” approach to snow and ice control; X number of hours after a storm the roads must be clear down to asphalt. The alternatives, usually due to a mixture of finance, regulations and environmental consciousness, taken by some is to limit the use of salt dramatically in favor of sand. One common factor: No single alternative is favored by a majority of communities. Yet, all residents want their streets to be ice-free and passable. A tough assignment given limited resources and near unlimited pressure to please all sides.

  7. I worked in the public sector for many years and can tell you that a great number of communities struggle with their “salting” policies. Some communities choose the “black roads” or “running water” approach to snow and ice control; X number of hours after a storm the roads must be clear down to asphalt. The alternatives, usually due to a mixture of finance, regulations and environmental consciousness, taken by some is to limit the use of salt dramatically in favor of sand. One common factor: No single alternative is favored by a majority of communities. Yet, all residents want their streets to be ice-free and passable. A tough assignment given limited resources and near unlimited pressure to please all sides.

  8. I worked in the public sector for many years and can tell you that a great number of communities struggle with their “salting” policies. Some communities choose the “black roads” or “running water” approach to snow and ice control; X number of hours after a storm the roads must be clear down to asphalt. The alternatives, usually due to a mixture of finance, regulations and environmental consciousness, taken by some is to limit the use of salt dramatically in favor of sand. One common factor: No single alternative is favored by a majority of communities. Yet, all residents want their streets to be ice-free and passable. A tough assignment given limited resources and near unlimited pressure to please all sides.

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