Alaska and snow have a close relationship, forged with fire. Or, rather, firepower. To keep uncontrolled natural avalanches from destroying the state’s roadways, Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities’ Chief of Statewide Maintenance and Operations Michael Coffey heads up a team that fights off the snow using an arsenal of heavy-duty firepower, including howitzers, dynamite and a brand new gas cannon.
Called the Daisy Bell, the $171,000 cannon hangs about 150 feet below a helicopter and triggers avalanches by emitting precise blasts of oxygen and hydrogen. These smaller, controlled avalanches are then quickly cleared away, ensuring larger, uncontrolled avalanches won’t destroy transportation infrastructure.
In the past, the Alaskan avalanche crews mostly shot down avalanches using a Korean War-era howitzer, but from set up to clean up, the process required about three hours of road closures. The Daisy Bell cuts this time down to about 45 minutes.
“This will result in fewer impacts to highway travelers,” says Coffey, adding that the process will also increase the amount of time crews can spend on snowplowing and other winter maintenance activities.
Dynamite, Coffey says, is also utilized when the howitzer cannot safely be deployed. Aerial- or heli-bombing, as it’s called, is performed occasionally along Alaska’s Seward Highway to prevent natural avalanches from damaging the roadway. It’s most often used in cooperation with the Alaska State Troopers. “If they need to get into a certain area,” he says, “we might do heli-bombing to make it safe for the troopers to go in for search-and-rescue type operations.”
Coffey says there are no clearly defined indicators that a particular area requires a blast from the cannons or a charge of dynamite, and that the decision relies on equal parts art and science. However, the four full-time state technicians take into account numerous factors in determining where a controlled avalanche would be beneficial. “They are looking at the snowpack… they are looking at temperatures, particularly if there are temperature changes. They are looking at the water content of the snow… they are looking for weak layers [in the snowpack],” he says. “Basically they are using the science to figure out when layers in the snowpack may give or may move.”
The number of controlled avalanches in a given season varies depending on weather conditions, but statewide, the DOT fires about 600 rounds per year from cannons with multiple rounds fired per mission. These 600 rounds cost approximately $56,000.
Snow removal can seem like a Sisyphean task, with new snow covering any progress made and residents complaining streets aren’t kept clear. To deal with the latter, Columbus, Ohio, recently rolled out Warrior Watch, a website that helps residents track exactly when and where snow removal crews are operating, as well as how soon those crews will get to particular streets.
First developed as a back-end service specifically for snow removal crews, Warrior Watch was initially a means by which fleet managers used sensors to track fleet whereabouts and work hours. However, Melanie Crabill, a public relations specialist for the city, says this winter the city decided seeing plow operations in real time would be helpful for residents. “Basically we’ve done it to be as transparent as possible,” says Crabill. “It’s a great way for people to see that we are out there taking care of the roads.”
The website is simple in both form and function. It depicts a map of Columbus and traces the paths of operational snowplows in real time along the city streets. Residents can also switch over to a priority view, which colors roads according to the order in which they will be plowed.
“It updates every 15 minutes, and you don’t have to refresh,” says Crabill. “And vehicles are pinged every 30 seconds or so.”
Overall, the program costs about $156,000, with approximately $17,000 going to the software and development of the website, Crabill says. The city contracted and worked closely with T&M Associates for this development.
But being so new, Warrior Watch is still a work in progress. There may be expansion in functionality in the coming years, but right now the city is focusing on making the current system as useful as possible. “We’re doing some updates as we learn what works and what doesn’t work,” Crabill says.
Leadership realized that a snow-removal ordinance passed last year would create challenges for elderly and disabled residents, so the city found a creative solution.
“As a city we realize there are some that are unable to take care of this [requirement that snow be removed within 24 hours of a storm],” says Stefanie DeNardin, the head of Marysville’s Parks and Recreation Department. “So we asked for residents to volunteer their time” to lend a hand to those unable to clear the snow themselves.
DeNardin says the city has about 40 volunteers willing to help this season. “They come from local businesses, church groups, high school sports teams [and the] National Junior Honor Society,” she says, adding that some of the volunteers have no affiliation, and are simply acting out of kindness. A call was put out via local media, and volunteers signed up with the parks and recreation department.
The city acts as the facilitator of the program. Elderly or disabled residents are encouraged to call the parks and recreation department and provide their addresses so they can be placed on a master list. When the storms come, volunteers who live close by are contacted and dispatched to remove the snow. Volunteers provide their own equipment, so the program operates at no cost to the city.
DeNardin says about a third of Marysville’s population is elderly, “so we feel [the program] would be a big help to them throughout the winter months.” Though this winter has been relatively mild in the city, “we have all the volunteers in place - ready to help whenever needed,” she says.
Over the past two winters, Lowell’s Public Works Department reduced its winter road salt use by 30 percent, saving over $780,000. The city attributed its savings to the instillation of spreader control systems on their snowplow trucks.
The system works by measuring environmental conditions, such as the vehicles speed and road surface temperatures, to regulate the rate salt or deicing materials are distributed, according to materials released by the manufacturer of the system, Cirus Controls.
Before installing the spreader controls, the public works department was wasting deicing materials. “Our operators would typically set their existing manual spreaders to maximum and go, putting down about 1,000 pounds of salt per lane mile.” Kevin Murphy, Lowell’s city manager, said in a statement. “As a result, our streets were often covered in salt after a storm.”
But after installing the spreaders, the savings – not the salt – began to pile up. “We’ve significantly reduced the amount of salt runoff into our rivers, streams and homeowners’ yards,” Murphy added. “In addition, the salt savings over the last two snow seasons has reduced our snow and ice liability. The smaller liability has negated our need to dip into any other budget surpluses or incorporating a greater snow and ice deficit into the following year’s budget, which would add to our citizens’ tax burden.”
With cold weather comes snow, and with snow comes the daunting task of removal. Across the country, cities have various methods and creative solutions for getting the job done.
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