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.