Snowed In: How Portland Deals with Snow

Last week, we looked at how Wakefield deals with snow. It’s a pretty uncomplicated process of plow, sand, salt, shovel and snowblowers. In Portland, things are a little bit more difficult.

Portland is the urban center of Maine. Located on a peninsula at the mouth of the Fore River and Casco Bay, it is home to roughly 66,000 people, although the greater Portland area houses roughly 200,000 people. Hardworking entrepreneurs have revitalized the city; award winning breweries, coffee roasteries, bakeries and restaurants have made Portland their home in the past ten years. It’s a great city to visit and an even better city to live in. I moved here three years ago, and every minute I get to spend enjoying the city’s beautiful scenery, amazing food and wonderful people is a privilege.

IMG_1451Dealing with snow in Portland is slightly more complex than Wakefield. When it snows in Portland, the first thing to come is the snow ban. Cars have to be moved to one of several lots or garages. My fianceé and I have one spot for our two cars, so we move a car to a nearby school. In the morning, we dig the car out before 7AM, and park on our street again, where snowplows promptly form another berm around it.

In Wakefield, when the driveways are plowed or shoveled there is plenty of room for the snow to go one the sides. However, here in Portland if you shovel your driveway, chances are you’re filling in someone else’s spot.

IMG_1423The majority of the snow removal done by the city happens in the congested Old Port, where the bulk of the offices, businesses, and restaurants are. This is where some creativity is employed. The streets and sidewalks are far too narrow for the plows to simply make snowbanks on the side of the road. Instead, massive snowblowers are deployed overnight, placing the snow into trucks which dump it at snow dumps at large vacant lots, sports fields, and school grounds.

This snowfarm in Portland's Bayside neighborhood is nearly 40 feet tall.

This snow dump near Trader Joe’s in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood is nearly 40 feet tall.


A snow dump on the edge of town is now considered to be at capacity, as it is near the FAA height limit and may interfere with small aircraft at the nearby Portland Jetport.

Sidewalks are cleared with specialized vehicles which have attachments for either plowing or snowblowing on the front, and salting or sanding on the rear. These machines often don’t reach the residential neighborhoods, which are tasked with clearing their own sidewalks.sidewalk plowFalling ice is also a real concern.Tall buildings combined with ice and lots of people walking under them makes for a bad combination. Outside our building one morning, I awoke to find half of a tree missing and the previously immaculate sidewalk buried in a foot of snow.

There's still more to come down as well.

There’s still more to come down as well.

Salt is overused here, with large piles often found on the sidewalks. Fortunately, groundwater contamination isn’t as big of an issue here as it is in rural place such as Wakefield, which need groundwater for their wells that make up the bulk of the town’s water supply. Portland’s water comes from rural (and protected) Sebago Lake to the north All of this salt ends up in the harbor.

IMG_1424Most boats in the harbor have been left to freeze, however the waterfront does have to remain open for ferryies and a city fireboat. Many island residents come in to the city each day for work, and if the ferry is shut down, they become isolated, trapped either at their home or office.

Things get difficult in the harbor when the temperature drops below zero

Things get difficult in the harbor when the temperature drops below zero


I couldn’t find a melter in use in Portland, but this shot from Canada illustrates the process.

Perhaps the most unique method of snow management available to Portland is the melters. Snow takes up a lot of space, but water can enter the storm drains and get off the streets. Snow melters, while expensive, are able to melt a large amount of snow that would otherwise crowd our streets.

While capturing these images of Portland and thinking about what its like living under the boot of Old Man Winter, I couldn’t help but romanticize the New Englander spirit. Ultimately there is a camaraderie that is formed by experiencing the harshness of winter together. We are often cold, the wind stinging our face, but we are together and surrounded by the beauty of our natural world, historic cities, and the great people that make our communities special. Even when it’s 4°F there are people walking around Portland, going about their day. Warmer weather is tempting, but I can’t imagine going through a winter without New England.


Snowed In: How we Deal with Record Snows

With the amount of snow we’ve received in the Northeast over the past month or so, it becomes difficult for us to remember what summer looked like. Chances are, there was a time just a few months ago when you were outside and you were uncomfortably warm. Remember that?

Remember when that glaring sun was a bad thing?

Surely this must be myth.

But, right now we’re in the month of February, often considered the coldest month of the year. In fact, Concord has had eight days so far this month where the temperature has dropped below 0°F and Mount Washington’s wind chill factor was -88°F this past weekend. I’ve spent my entire life in the three northern New England states (Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine) and this is by far the harshest winter I’ve experienced, albeit at a bit of a late start.

The cold isn’t the only thing making this winter unbearable. The snow has been monumental; literally record setting. Multiple blizzards and winter storms have pounded New England. Ironically, this is one year where Massachusetts can attest to this more than Maine and New Hampshire. With more than 72” of snow over a 30 day period, Boston’s had so much snow it has stopped the T, bringing the city to a grinding halt. Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA even has a wall of ice comparable to the one from Game of Thrones , and MIT has a mountain of snow dubbed the “MIT Alps”.

The MIT Alps, a snowbank several stories tall in a vacant green on campus

The MIT Alps, a snowbank several stories tall in a vacant green on campus

They literally have had to dump snow into Boston Harbor, an act normally illegal but permitted in times of extreme need. Further north in the AWWA region, we went nearly three weeks without two consecutive snow-less days. We also came within an inch of beating the snowiest two week period on record at 48.4”.

So where does all this snow go? This blog will examine how Wakefield and Acton, rural New England towns, and Portland, the largest city in Maine and home to yours truly, have dealt with the snow.

I will start with Wakefield, as they are likely familiar to all of our readers. The solution in Wakefield is simple when dealing with snow. A mix of plowing, sand and salt have kept the roads relatively clear. The Fire Department needs to clear the small number of fire hydrants and homeowners snowblow, plow or shovel their own driveways. Private roads are maintained by some now very sleep deprived plowmen, and the roads are kept relatively passable. Space is what allows all this to be possible. Snow gets blasted back from the roads and into ditches, forest, or onto lawns. As more snow comes down, the snowbanks get gradually higher.

Sometimes taller than an extremely salty Prius

Sometimes taller than an extremely salty Prius

The heavy snow in the past month has led to some challenges, even with the increased storage space along rural country roads. Plowmen try to put snowbanks as far back as possible, but even the best plowmen wouldn’t have anticipated this much snow without any melt. The result is snowbanks encroaching on driveways, parking lots, etc. Dirfts also cause a major problem, because while the snow is still powdery and the winds are still active, the shoveling is never over.

My dad learns this lesson multiple times each winter

My dad learns this lesson multiple times each winter

This means that additional plowing, snowblowing, or even a loader has to come in and remove this snow. Though expensive, none of this is impossible with the use of even the most basic equipment and chemicals.

When all of this snow melts, which could start as early as Sunday with anticipated rains, the various chemicals from the road, sand, salt and exhaust fumes will go with it, sinking down into the ground or running overland into streams and rivers. Salt becomes a major problem, as it is dissolved so thoroughly that the ground cannot filter it out, leading to high levels of salt in groundwater, especially near major roads. This is nowhere near as big of a problem in Wakefield as it is in more urbanized areas though, but we’ll get to that next week in my discussion of how Portland, ME is dealing with all this snow in an urban environment.