The Snowpocalypse Problem

By Viraj Shankar

January 8th, 2005: Nestled behind two thick maple trees, both radiating with sunken, yet somehow towering branches, stood a perfectly proportioned craftsman house. Its navy blue hue stood out amongst the darkening clouds. The tall, coarse bark snaked its way down from the tree’s peak to its base, where it encountered an expansive stretch of chilled concrete. A contiguous surface, the marbled concrete flowed like a river at its calmest hour. The steep gradient of the hill, where the driveway met the road, made the perfect duo for a disaster waiting to happen. Then, a snowflake, effervescent in nature, raced to the street, and congealed upon contact.

Along with her husband and five year old daughter, Laura had been living here for just about two years. Her home was situated at the peak of a steep slope. The road from which their driveway divulged slithered down the hill, back and forth, like a squirmy snake. They hadn’t experienced a severe winter in Portland. Yet in the suburban mountain sprawl that is Forest Heights, where hills transcend house numbers, a winter storm was quietly brewing. This was all, of course, unbeknownst to Laura. She was merely entertaining a few houseguests at the close of the holiday break. As brittle, pearl-like pellets of ice trickled down with silky flakes of snow, Laura and her brother decided to walk outside, marveling at the scenery in the seemingly peaceful weather.

As the two emerged from their toasty house, the pair noticed the wintry precipitation had begun to polish off the roads and sidewalks, leaving them with a shiny, sparkling luster. As they walked further into the front yard, her brother started to lose balance. He quickly lost his grip, and stumbled to the ground. The snow intensified in nature. As a startled Laura tried to help him up, an even bigger problem spiraled toward them, quite literally.

Laura’s neighbor burst out of nowhere, his car veering left and right as it skidded out of control. The ice furiously repelled the tires, causing the cascading car to hurl straight into Laura’s mailbox. The car came screeching to a halt. Laura, now more than just startled, rushed to the car to make sure her neighbor wasn’t hurt. Luckily, despite the damage to the car and the mailbox, he was unharmed. The neighbor, who lived just three doors away, conferred with Laura to assess the damage, then trudged back to his house, which was only a few steps away from where his car had ceased course. Despite the chaos, Laura stayed calm. It appeared that the worst was behind her. But rather then behind, it was right in front of her.

Just a short while later, as she was pondering how to fix the mailbox, Laura’s eyes jolted open. Yet another car, this time a minivan, came careening down the road, which had now transformed into a heavy sheet of ice. With no mailbox to stop it, the car fell victim to the brute force of gravitational acceleration, and twisted through Laura’s front yard. As the car raced past Laura, it flipped over. The sheer impact stopped the car immediately. Once again, Laura raced over to the van, and there saw a family of five hanging upside down, like possums. The situation was desperate. Laura called 911. The operator picked up. They swiftly asked whether the situation was life threatening. Was it? Laura knew it wasn’t quite that dire. She hung up. She yelled at the family, asking them if they were okay. In broken English, they begged for help.

Darting across their house to rescue the trapped family, Laura and her husband found a rope, and fastened it between their house and the minivan. After rolling down the car windows, they handed the family crampons to put on their shoes. One by one, the pair helped the family out of the van. Laura and her husband brought the family into her house, and warmed them up with hot cocoa.

Laura paused. In the flurry of chaos, her world was spiraling around her. Her mailbox was crushed, there were two cars in her front yard, her brother’s leg was injured, and a family of strangers were stuck in her house, all as she was entertaining guests. Seeing the state of disarray, Laura couldn’t help but wonder: How could this be possible?

❆ ❆ ❆

December 14, 2008: The temperature plummeted. The winds were light, yet eerie. The schools? Closed preemptively, fearing for the worst and hoping for the best. Then, it came, first falling lightly. But it didn’t stop. It snowed for 1 day. Then 2 days. 3, 4, 5. You could visit the Opera House in Sydney, the Taj Mahal in India, and the Colosseum in Rome, and it would still be snowing upon your return Portland. You get the point: the flakes just wouldn’t stop falling. Finally, on December 20th, the snow relented, but not before leaving a startling thirty inches of snow in some areas of the metro area. The storm completely paralyzed Portland, leaving cars stranded, flights cancelled, and offices closed.

February 6, 2014: Snow arrived in the Portland area. But more than just snow came this time. Soon after, freezing rain pelted down onto the city, glazing the streets like icing on a donut. The MAX lines were frozen in place, halting all trains. Nearly three-quarters of an inch of ice glossed the city of Lake Oswego, about 10 miles south of Portland, creating a clear, frosty nightmare. The “Worst Day of the Year” bike ride was cancelled, with organizers fearing for the safety of the participants. The storm completely paralyzed Portland, leaving cars stranded, flights cancelled, offices closed, and shops shuttered.

January 11, 2017: The weather forecasters warned of an incoming system. Portland had already been fatigued by winter weather this season, receiving significant hits of snow and ice in December. But around 7 PM, the snow started falling again. It fell. And fell. And fell some more. The fat, fluffy flakes waned through the air before kissing the ground, soon leaving Portland buried in nearly 20 inches of snow. But the worst was yet to come. Once the storm passed, frigid temperatures trapped the snow on the ground for 11 days. Children got a second winter break. The storm completely paralyzed Portland, leaving cars stranded, flights cancelled, offices closed, shops shuttered, and citizens powerless.

The facts couldn’t be clearer: When snow descends on Portland, all hell breaks loose. Winter weather, no matter the scope, seems to construct catastrophic impacts within the metro area. Inches cause nightmares, but even a mere sprinkle of snow can “bring Portland to its knees”, as The Oregonian put it. At times, it truly feels that Portland has spun off the Earth’s axis, as frozen in time as the street poles are. The attitude? Ask most Portlanders, and you’ll hear a common thread: don’t dare venture outside until it all just melts away (Njus 2016).

In dealing with snow, Portland faces a monster of a problem. Looming large however, is one conspicuous factor: Salt.

❆ ❆ ❆

I strolled down Burnside road. Flakes of snow pursed my cheeks as I peered in the window of Powell’s Books. I was waiting for the coat of snow on the street to thicken. Lights beamed from all directions, while horns were honked, and cars were towed. The scene was anything but quiet. Suddenly, a truck hoisting a colossal mound of salt plowed forward, belching a deafening noise as it neared me. It soon passed, and I noticed rough, uncut grains of salt fluttering out through two pipes. My eyes fixated on the road as the grains lightly bounced up and down, and I wondered: Would salt change Portland?

Indeed, until very recently, both city and government officials in Portland had continued to steer clear this major chemical used throughout the United States during the winter season. Some of the biggest cities in the Northeast, including New York and Boston, have regularly used salt as a way of battling Nor’easters, which come every year and engulf the cities with heaps of snow. Even Seattle, Portland’s big brother, has been described as becoming “addicted to salt”, according to Urban Hub. Within hours of their latest weather emergency, the city rapidly went from using 90 tonnes, to over 900 tonnes of salt (Bicknell 2019).

But to understand America’s seemingly intense obsession with salt, you have to appreciate just how well it works. Take two ice cubes out of your freezer, and put them in two respective glasses. Next, add a teaspoon of salt to one of the cubes. You will notice that both of the ice cubes will start melting. However, the ice cube with salt applied to it will melt significantly faster than the other one. But why?

Water molecules slow down as the temperature approaches 32 degrees Celsius. When the temperature hovers around this number, water molecules become more attracted to each other, and solidify, creating ice. During the phase change from liquid to solid, water molecules are able enter and leave the solid structure at the same rate. Salt, however, through its simple presence, hinders the ability for water molecules to re-enter the structure by taking up space. This results in more molecules leaving the solid then entering it. Eventually though, if the temperature is lowered past 32 degrees, the molecules will slow down even further, and will once again leave and enter at the same point. Thus, the presence of salt is able to lower the freezing point of water (Eaton 2017).

The chemistry may be cool, but for residents, it’s the practicality of salt that is most appealing. Over the last few years, many, including business owners and parents, became frustrated that the local and state government transportation agencies had largely refrained from using salt (Melhalf 2017). Following the January 2017 snowstorm, the entire metropolis was sealed in for days from the icy, messy streets. Parents were unable to even drive their kids to school, let alone drive themselves to work. Furthermore, these events have had real world consequences for many business owners. According to food magazine Eater, one coffee shop lost 12,000 dollars in revenue in just 4 days. More than a simple inconvenience, Portland’s massive snow problem reveals a picture with much more serious consequences (Filloon 2017).

❆ ❆ ❆

Schools in the Portland area can also be hit pretty hard by snowstorms. These wintry freaks of nature trigger schools to make tough calls on cancellations or delays, especially when snow events happen with little or no warning. Jon Von Behren, who serves as Director of Facilities at Oregon Episcopal School (OES), gave me insight as to how the school operates when faced with such an urgent issue.

“What was the worst of them?” John asked, with his eyes squinting towards the ceiling as he tried to remember. “Well, it was forecast that the snow was coming, and there was a certain amount of skepticism about the forecast, it was going to be all about timing.” And all about timing it was. At 1:30 PM, in mid December of 2016, snow began falling right outside OES. The snow came in droves, and Jon had to make the quick decision to send out buses early, even though weathermen had said that the snow was going to come later on. Many buses got stuck, and communication within the school became a nightmare to handle. As he grimaced, Jon said that for him, the worst part of planning for these snow events was the unpredictability of the snow itself.

For his part, Jon has tried to improve the school’s ability to deal with snow, and create a campus which is safe for all students. Recently, OES has purchased a plow to help with snow removal, and has ensured that they always have a good stock of ice melt on hand. Every time there is a possibility for snow, he wakes up far before any other student. At three in the morning, while it’s still pitch black outside, Jon takes his truck out to investigate the conditions, knowing that the school has to make a decision by five. He laughed as I talked to him, and, with a tinge of playfulness in his voice, responded, “Whether there is one inch of snow or one foot, the vibe of Portland is just pure chaos. We really just don’t know how to drive in it.”

❆ ❆ ❆

The usage of salt on roads, however, remains a contentious debate. As previously explained, salt can have its practical benefits. Yet it also can have extremely negative impacts, and it is important to understand the consequences of using this chemical. According to the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, salt can have adverse effects on wildlife, aquatic life, pets, humans, water quality, soil, and infrastructure (“Environmental, Health and Economic Impacts of Road Salt.” N.D.).

The complexities that salt imposes on the natural environment are much greater in scope than many may imagine. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, 22 million tonnes of salt—the cumulative weight of 12 million cars—is poured onto America’s roads every year. Once all of that salt dissolves, it is separated into sodium and chloride component ions, and flows into streams, lakes, rivers, and groundwater. Chloride, however, is considered the ion that scientists worry the most about, as it has the potential to move rapidly through environments. This quick spread can wreak havoc on a plethora of species, as well as the grounds that house them (Stromberg 2014).

More specifically though, water salinity can affect species diversity in aquatic ecosystems, as well as pose a threat to food sources. Birds can mistake non-dissolved salts for seeds and eat them, potentially resulting in lethal consequences. The paws of a dog can become irritated and infected. People that require low sodium diets can be put into worsening situations, some of which can be detrimental to their health, as a result of ingesting water with higher salinity levels. Chemical stratification, in which oxygen is prevented from reaching the bottom of lakes and ponds, can also occur as a result of increased salt concentration. (“Environmental, Health and Economic Impacts of Road Salt.”, N.D.).

This stratification alone has the ability to affect many, many aquatic organisms, which are important for biodiversity, and keeping our waters clean and safe. But its larger impact must not be understated. Biodiversity is vital to ensuring that our planet is healthy, and can have a tremendous amount of positive impacts for human life as well.  A publication from Virginia Tech explains that, “Our aquatic wildlife are important sources of food, energy, jobs, atmospheric oxygen, buffers against new diseases, pests, and predators, and protection against food shortages and global climate change. Conserving a rich diversity of plants and animals will: help us to discover new drugs and medicines; provide food for the growing human populations; add oxygen and reduce ozone and carbon dioxide in our atmosphere; and add jobs and promote tourism through the enjoyment of nature.” (Helfrick et. Al 2009).

With increased water salinity, the list of problems and ramifications simply goes on and on. And it serves as a reminder, that, while simply shoving salt on the roads may fix some winter problems, it can have boundless impacts on entire ecosystems, and can have an acute effect on our ability to keep humans, and the planet, in good condition.

❆ ❆ ❆

Of all people in the world, perhaps John Brady and Tia York best understand the problems in the way Portland handles snow. With John as the Director of Communications and Public Involvement for the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), and Tia as the Public Relations Specialist of TriMet (the public transport company of Portland), the two are instrumental in informing citizens how winter weather is handled in the region.

John has been at the forefront of many of these winter events, working to explain the obstacles that PBOT has faced during times of severe weather, which, you can probably tell by now, happens more than once or twice a year. Likewise, Tia is front and center when explaining decisions made by TriMet, an agency which is responsible for getting tens of thousands of people to their desired destination each day, even during winter weather events.

I walked up the staircase, lined with metallic sparkles glowing off the sun’s light. Emerging from underground, I stepped into the concrete jungle. There it was. A sleek, post-modern building stood in front of me. I pushed the doors open, and took a seat at a white bar stool. John soon joined me at the table.

As I furiously scribbled down notes, I noticed a unique sense of pointedness from John. He explained why he believes pandemonium occurs in an almost regularly scheduled fashion during a snow event. When the brunt of these storms arrive, he says, many decide to leave early—but often only after the snow starts falling—resulting in a widespread amount of cars hogging the road. This, in turn, causes roads to thaw slightly, making the snow more slippery, and increasing the risk of traffic accidents.

I opened my laptop. A bright red dot caught my eyes. Tia had responded. Parsing through her detailed answers to my questions, one bit caught my attention. Tia had meticulously noted how the sheer size of vehicles in mass transit can lead to chaos throughout the region. She pointed out, “If cars are sliding down hills – just imagine the challenge the hill would present to a 15-20 ton vehicle.” She continued, explaining how major snow events can cause snow to “hide our tracks on surface streets”, which results in many drivers blocking trains, thus slowing down service in the process. Logistics also complicate things, as Tia said that maintenance workers, supervisory staff, dispatchers, and controllers are all needed in droves to maintain order during chaotic events like these.

I stared at John, noting his glossy black glasses. The question of salt had inevitably arose. As I pressed him on why the department has been reluctant to use salt in the past, John explained, with a great sense of candor in his voice, that there have been concerns from many agencies cautioning the excessive use of salt. But he also noted that de-icer, also known as magnesium chloride, can often be more effective than salt.

Magnesium chloride, often considered the best alternative to salt, is known for its quick absorption of moisture and anti-corrosive properties, which help limit the amount of damage done to the undercarriage of cars (“Magnesium Chloride Ice Melt” 2013). “Put de-icer down on a dry road, and it’s more effective than salt. It will be effective up to a week.” John said. He elaborated, though, saying, “Rock salt expands our ability to deal with different conditions.” He described how salt, rather than a preventative measure, can be used as a defense mechanism to minimize the exacerbation of problems that occur on roads already covered in snow. Sand is also integrated into PBOT’s snow plan, with John saying that it is most commonly used at intersections, where it proves to be excellent for traction purposes.

One more question still brimmed inside me, though: Why did small dustings of snow seem to cause just as much trouble as major snowstorms? Upon asking John, his tone alone spoke a thousand words: it was one of mild uneasiness. He explained that the fluctuation in temperature can lead the city to be more unprepared at times, as a drop from 33 degrees to 31 degrees can make all the difference. For example, if rain was forecasted, but the east winds started to blow faster, the temperature in the metro area could drop enough to make the precipitation turn to snow. And without knowledge of impending winter precipitate, roads and public transport can be brought to a halt in a matter of minutes. Certainly, it’s a good reason to be anxious.

Portland’s bizarre climate only enhances this problem of “sudden snowstorms”. The region has both strange topography and weather conditions. What does this equate to? Microclimates, says John. He explained that he has often encountered situations, the most recent being the February of this year, where one part of the city gets blanketed in snow, while another part doesn’t even get a flake. What’s more, Portland’s vast differences in terrain, ranging from flat plains to peaking hills, have at times allowed for more intense logistical problems to be concentrated in specific areas of the region, such as the undulating areas of Mount Tabor and Forest Park.

John gestured with his hands, moving them back and forth, as he tried to convey the different forces of nature in an almost animated fashion. He pointed out the fact that Portland is in a very awkward position when it comes to snowfall. “The primary weather patterns just didn’t make [salt] a necessity for us. [The snow just] lasts for a day or so, usually.” said John. Portland does get hammered when snow arrives, but as he points out, that “snowpocalypse” does not come every winter, and when normal amounts of snow arrives, it only impacts traffic for a day or so. Portland’s snow amounts, while temporarily damaging, just aren’t the large scale snowmageddons that many other northern cities face, save the rare event with a foot or more of snow.

❆ ❆ ❆

This, of course, is not to negate the consequences of snow. Even receiving small amounts of snow is no excuse for poor planning. Portlanders may not always notice it, but both TriMet and PBOT have tried to make improvements lately in the way they deal with snow.

John explained that the city has taken numerous measures to try and prevent the previous problems that have plagued Portland for years, such as having few plows, no salt, and little departamental or public communication.”We’ve also learned other things in terms of communicating, we have been much more assertive in communicating [with the public and other counties]”.  John added that PBOT has added a real time plow map to help all citizens know which roads are best to travel on. They also now require chains for travel on numerous roads during storms, including Burnside road, which has become notorious for accidents when it is snow-lined. Social media, along with press events, has become an integral part of PBOT’s public communication strategy as well, actively trying to inform citizens on how to stay safe in winter weather.

After the snowstorm of 2017, PBOT began to test salt on a limited amount of roads, and since then, has expanded their network of road salting, which has resulted in fewer road closures. John locked his eyes with mine, however, while saying that enhancing communication throughout the city has also led to fewer closures, clearly promoting the fact that the reduction of road closures was the product of more than a single variable solution.

On the public transport side, Tia told me that TriMet has recently developed a “Winter Weather Playbook”: a set of instructions designed to help calm the chaos that precipitates during snow events. Attaching chains on buses are an important part of this winter plan, as well as ice cutters, which are used to handle snow and ice that stands in the way of their trains. These sophisticated pieces of equipment, called pantographs, attach the train to the overhead electric wiring. There are two pantographs on each train, one which harnesses electricity, and one which scrapes away ice. Tia said that TriMet is actively working to install these on their newest trains, ensuring enhanced efficiency in the future.

While focusing on direct attacks against snow and ice, TriMet is also trying to develop preemptive strikes: solutions that can mitigate problems before they begin. Tia embellished her previous statement on pantographs by adding that they have, “… also added ice cap[s] on much of the overhead wire on the system – another preventative measure to keep ice or snow from building up on the overhead wires.” Furthermore, TriMet has a actively engaged in running “tabletop” (hypothetical emergency) situations, to help better prepare for future problems they may encounter. New antifreeze technology for cables is currently being tested as well, with the hopeful result of further improving ease in the flow of public transport.

❆ ❆ ❆

Yet, while much is being done to improve the quality of response to snow and ice, many basic obstacles, such as steep hills, and temperatures hovering around freezing, still naturally persist, presenting fresh problems each time a winter weather event occurs. Many of us often get caught up in the minutiae of the moment, especially when chaotic events flurry as fast as those snowflakes around us. But getting caught up in the moment spurs a forgetful disposition, one that doesn’t assess the wider impacts. Salt may seem like that, quick, fast, easy solution that we all crave, just to get back a taste of normal life. Yet in fact, salt is much more than a simple chemical, but rather a complex one that has the ability to debilitate entire ecosystems.

As Portland grows, the desire for a more calibrated, meticulous response has materialized. Many have moved to the region from out of state, and thus expect a greater level of service. John told me that, “Two years ago, a watershed moment occurred”, when the city received more criticism than usual for its handling of snow. Some residents have moved from the East Coast, where snow occurs regularly, and city and public transport officials move in an almost superhuman fashion to keep cities running smoothly. Others come from California, where snow is a rarity, and many arrive in Portland not knowing how to drive in even a light flurry.

Noticeably, while environmental impacts have often been cited by officials and media as the reason for abstaining from salt usage, the specificities of those impacts are often ignored (Mehlhaf 2017). Perhaps, a better understanding of precisely why salt can not always be an instantaneous response to snow events would lead to a more receptive and empathetic public. Portland often touts itself as one of the most environmentally conscious cities in the United States, and with good reason. Widespread bike paths, energy-efficient buses, and an enormous forest just minutes from the city definitely give the impression of environmentally friendliness. But that impressive image is sometimes clouded by immediate problems, ones that can seem more pressing in the moment. But remembering the big picture is crucial to maintaining the roots of Portland, both literally and figuratively.

Laura tried to keep that in mind. The sun glistened over her forehead, but only for a second. The thick white clouds dreamily moving across the sky fell victim to the rapid arrival of dark storm clouds. Just as one storm had ended, she felt another snowflake brush up against her hair. With her feet pushed down against the cold concrete, she watched as the news team, who had come to report the tumultuous events that occured right in her yard, cautiously parked. As they got out, she looked on. The van was skidding down the hill.

 

Works Cited:

Bicknell, Natalie. “Seattle’s Salt Addiction.” The Urbanist, 13 Feb. 2019,

http://www.theurbanist.org/2019/02/06/seattles-salt-addiction/.

 

Brady, John. Personal Interview, March 8th, 2019.

 

Eaton, Anna. “Chemistry: the Effect of Salt on the Freezing Point of Water.” Science

Matters, WordPress, 26 Sept. 2017,

blog.science-matters.org/2011/09/26/chemistry-the-effect-of-salt-on-the-freezing-point-of-water/.

 

“Environmental, Health and Economic Impacts of Road Salt.” New Hampshire

Department of Environmental Services,

http://www.des.nh.gov/organization/divisions/water/wmb/was/salt-reduction-initiative/impacts.htm.

 

Filloon, Whitney. “How Restaurants Are Suffering Through Freak Winter Weather.”

Eater, Eater, 18 Jan. 2017,

http://www.eater.com/2017/1/18/14302936/restaurants-business-winter-storm-weath

r-portland.

 

Helfrich, Louis A, et al. What Is Aquatic Biodiversity; Why Is It Important? 2009, pp. 2–3,

What Is Aquatic Biodiversity; Why Is It Important?

 

“Magnesium Chloride Ice Melt.” KISSNER, 19 Nov. 2013,

http://www.kissner.com/magnesium-chloride-ice-melt/.

 

Mehlhaf, Nina. “Many Question Oregon’s Hesitation to Use Salt after Storm.” KGW, 17

Jan. 2017,

http://www.kgw.com/article/weather/many-question-oregons-hesitation-to-use-salt-after-storm/386585549.

 

Njus, Elliot. “How Did an Inch of Snow Shut down Portland? Hubris and Bad Timing.”

Oregonlive.com, Oregonlive.com, 16 Dec. 2016,

http://www.oregonlive.com/commuting/2016/12/how_did_an_inch_of_snow_shut_d.html.

 

Ryan, Jim. “Portland-Area Snowfall Causes Traffic Gridlock, Crashes, Bus Problems.”

Oregonlive.com, Oregonlive.com, 15 Dec. 2016,

http://www.oregonlive.com/weather/2016/12/light_portland-area_snowfall_c.html.

 

Stromberg, Joseph. “What Happens to All the Salt We Dump On the Roads?”

Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 6 Jan. 2014,

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/what-happens-to-all-the-salt-we-dump-on-the-roads-180948079/.

 

Staff, KATU. “Why Doesn’t Oregon Use Salt on Roads during Snow and Ice?” KATU, 15

Dec. 2016,

katu.com/news/local/why-doesnt-oregon-transportation-odot-use-salt-on-roads-during-snow-and-ice-portland-pbot.

 

Steele, Laura. Personal Interview, April 20th, 2019.

 

Von Barren, Jon. Personal Interview, April 16th, 2019.

 

York, Tia. Personal Interview, April 26th, 2019.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s