The Effects of Snow Removal on the Environment

Someone said, “When it snows, you have two choices: shovel or make snow angels.” As a child, snowfall brought extreme joy. We remember running out the door while our moms yelled at us to wear gloves because we just could not wait to build a snowman, lob some snowballs at our siblings or friends or if the snow was thick enough – flop down to make some snow angels as the person said. But as an adult, we cannot help but groan whenever snowfall is forecasted because the first choice of shoveling is not even a choice anymore but a must. 

The beauty of snow loses its luster when we learn how dangerous it can be and the accidents it can cause if left uncleared. Therefore the local governing bodies spend a lot of funds towards de-icers each year to guarantee the public roads and walkways remain ice-free to ensure public and road safety. Private homeowners also invest in equipment like snowblowers and snowplows to keep their driveways snowless and make sure access to their homes is not restricted. But like a lot of industries, these snow removal techniques have a negative effect on the environment. Let’s take a deeper look to understand better.

Impact of Snow Blowers on the Environment

At the fag end of fall, we’re already checking if our snowblower is good to go come winter. We tune them up so that we can whip them out whenever snow is forecasted and get to clearing our driveways. Little did we know how much our carbon footprint increases in size every time we do this. 

The United States Environmental Protection Agency has said that an average two-stroke snowblower emits about a pound of carbon monoxide per hour of its usage. Don’t understand how much that is? Mother Earth News says that your car would emit that much carbon monoxide when you drive it for 70 miles. 

The Department of Environmental Quality states that the emissions of a typical four-stroke gas-powered snowblower after an hour of usage are the same as that of a car after it has covered 339 miles.

These are some big numbers that we need to be aware of, especially as the earth’s average temperature is rising due to global warming.

Impact of De-icers on the Environment

Salt has been used to remove the snow on U.S. roads since the 1940s. According to the American Geosciences factsheet, the average amount of salt applied to the roads each year is 24.5 million tons. That number seems a little incomprehensible because of how big it is. And it makes one wonder where all of it goes once winter ends.

Rock salt melts the snow and ice, mixes with the water formed subsequently, and seeps into the ground and surface waters, thus increasing their salinity. Rock salt runoffs that enter drinking reservoirs and private wells can have a significant effect on human health. Increased sodium concentrations (since sodium chloride is the main component of rock salt) can adversely affect people with hypertension.

These saltwater runoffs can enter surface waters like rivers and lakes as well. In small concentrations, they get diluted by the freshwater bodies, but as the usage of rock salt has increased steeply over the years, we face an environmental crisis. High chloride levels are toxic to fish and other freshwater organisms, as well as amphibians; it affects their fertilization and development process.

Rock salt that accumulates in high concentrations at the side of the roads is extremely harmful to the plants and animals that lick the salt crystals.

Salt is also a corrosive agent and leads to the corrosion of bridges, vehicles, and roads, making the government spend 5 billion dollars annually on repairs. Thus, there is a severe financial impact due to the use of excessive rock salt.

What We Can Do

Now that we know that some snow removal techniques can have a severe effect on the environment, the question foremost on your mind probably is, “How can I help?”

Here are a few ways you can reduce your emissions and salt usage.

Changing Your Snow Blower

If you still use a gas-powered snowblower, you can change it to a battery-powered, electric, or hybrid snowblower. Electric snowblowers are cheaper and easier to maintain, but they are not very effective in removing heavier snow loads. So use electric snowblowers only if your region does not experience frequent snowfall. With proper research, you can find some battery-powered snowblowers that will be best for your use. Regular maintenance of a snowblower will also help reduce the emissions caused by it.

Brine Solution

Preventive measures are often recommended than corrective measures. So replacing the de-icing process with an anti-icing process will go a long way in reducing salt seepages into water. Rhode Island has been using one such method where they apply a brine solution with a 23.3% salt concentration to the roads before a forecasted snowfall. This melts the snow on contact and prevents the creation of frost.

Using A Sand Mixture

Mixing sand with the salt while treating the roads is also a good alternative to applying pure rock salt. This sand will not melt the ice, but it will create enough traction for people to drive their cars without the risk of slipping. But the amount of sand used needs to be kept in check. If excessive sand is used, it will run off with the snowmelt and enter into freshwater bodies and reservoirs, polluting them.

Hiring A Snow Removal Service

Better ways to combat the environmental impact are still being studied since the measures presented above are not without their disadvantages. Hiring a professional snow removal service to clear the snow whenever possible could contribute towards reducing the usage of de-icing agents. For example, if you contact a snow removal company to clear the snow off your whole neighborhood, you would be preventing the use of multiple private snowblowers and the de-icing of that entire area, thus making the entire process more environment-friendly.

Let us continue to adapt techniques that will not negatively impact the environment or have a reduced impact on the environment because, in the current climate of rising temperatures, every little contribution counts.

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