Posted on October 9, 2009 by
The seasons turn quickly in Wyoming, and I don’t mean one day you’re kicking around in sandals and the next day you’ve decided to compliment them with socks. No, here in Grand Teton National Park, where I’m a seasonal ranger, I was standing atop an 11,000-foot peak in short sleeves one day last week and the next day it snowed in the valley, with temps barely scraping forty. In the mountains it was the new snow that won’t melt until next July or possibly August. The date was September 30, and it has snowed several times in the week since. It will snow some more tonight. It’s like somebody flipped a switch: summer one day, winter the next. No fall to speak of.
While the temperatures here are dropping, the level of stress associated with my morning commute is rising. What was once an 18-mile traffic-free cruise through one of the most scenic tableaux in the world is now a white-knuckle crawl on icy roads in the dark, sunrise and the melting point still at least an hour away. It got me thinking about something: the ten million tons of salt that highway departments all across the US are preparing to dump on our roads this winter to make them passable.
Of course, in a national park, where my commute takes place, salt is verboten as a deicer, with sand and gravel filling in as a gritty and inert substitute. This underscores the problems of salt. Anything a national park decides is detrimental to environmental quality is probably something the rest of us should pay attention to. In fact, road salt, not being easily trained, either doesn’t seem to know that it is only meant for roadways or willfully flaunts the boundaries we project on it. Whatever the case, in the act of turning ice into liquid, it tends to wash itself right into streams and groundwater. Anyone familiar with the concepts of saltwater versus freshwater and the fact that they host different species of aquatic life (and rarely the twain shall meet), can probably guess that salinating freshwater bodies is disagreeable to the organisms involved. Amphibians in particular do not fare well. Humans don’t get along terribly well with saltwater, either. We need the fresh stuff, and when road salt runoff contaminates a well of drinking water, that well is done.
Even when it hasn’t yet made it into the water system, salt finds a way to mess with things. It changes the pH of the soil, weakening native plant species and encouraging the establishment of hardier invasives. Still in situ on the blacktop, it attracts wildlife such as deer and moose, creating conflicts with traffic that are dangerous for both the animals and winter drivers.
Eventually, with the exception of what gets licked up by mammals, all ten million tons of road salt will end up in surface streams or groundwater, environments not at all prepared for such an influx of sodium chloride. So what to do?
Well, as I mentioned I’d seen in the parks, sand is one alternative. Of course, the very thing it has going for it – that it’s not a water-soluble chemical – is its biggest drawback, because it doesn’t melt ice. It merely increases friction, and for a very limited time. And then it doesn’t go very far, piling up on roadsides and clogging storm drains.
There are other chemical deicers beside salt, magnesium chloride being one. These seem in many ways safer than salt, but still can negatively impact local environments when applied in quantity. They also tend to be more expensive than good ol’ (toxic) rock salt.
I’d like to end this post with a nice neat suggestion for how to handle icy roads in an environmentally friendly way, but all I can come up with is for us to all park our cars for the winter (whenever that comes to your neighborhood) and strap on skis or skates to get around. Putting stuff (any stuff when it’s ten million pounds of it) on the pavement just isn’t good for anything except drivers. But I have to get up early tomorrow morning and navigate 18 miles of treacherous untreated Jackson Hole black ice, so maybe I’m not qualified to give an unbiased view.