Last Thursday, a fast-moving but powerful snowstorm pelted the New York City metropolitan area with half a foot of snow before eventually changing to sleet and rain. The storm caught everyone—commuters, local and state authorities, and even the weather forecasters—by surprise. Because only a few inches of snow were originally predicted, heavy snow-fighting equipment—namely snow plows and salt spreaders—were not deployed until it was too late. By the time the plows and spreaders came out, they were stuck in massive traffic jams with the rest of us and could not get to their destinations.
As a beleaguered commuter who was stuck for some eight hours on clogged, snow (and ice) covered roads trying to get home that evening, I probably have as much right as anyone else to vent my anger over the manner the storm was handled by authorities. While I do hold them accountable to a point, I think the circumstances surrounding the storm were difficult to gauge. Rather than add to ranting and raving, I started thinking about other ways these situations can be handled.
Because the core problem revolved around highway maintenance equipment not being able to react quickly enough, I believe part of the solution should be redesigning our roads to mitigate the effects of these storms before more drastic measures have to be taken.
The solution could involve our highways and bridges becoming more “intelligent” to predict and react to snow and ice. Sensors could be implanted at strategic intervals to detect snow and ice. These sensors could in turn trigger heating elements, also embedded in the roads, to melt snow and ice to slow their buildup on the roads. While it would be a massive undertaking to do this for long highway stretches, how about starting by placing them on road entrances and exits, and highway and bridge inclines which tend to freeze up first during these storms? I can’t tell you how many cars and trucks I’ve seen stuck at highway entrances and exits during snowstorms.
An article I found online suggests some variations of this idea. The article suggests building solar road panels with embedded heating elements that melt existing snow and ice and prevent accumulation from developing. The article also presents an idea of embedding pipes with freeze-resistant fluid into a heat-absorbing roadway. The fluid would be heated in warm weather and stored in insulated chambers.
Embedding heating wires into road surfaces is another possibility. This would involve laying out a grid of heating cables in asphalt concrete. When heated, the cables could generate sufficient thermal energy that when transferred to the snow cover would heat the snow sufficiently to melt it.
While none of these solutions are inexpensive or easy to implement, particularly on a mass scale, I’m a bit surprised more transportation authorities don’t at least consider them. The cost of implementing this technology could in the long run be offset by lower costs to maintain and repair snow plows and less money spent on salt supplies. And above all, regional agencies won’t have to keep playing Russian roulette deciding whether and when to send out the plows.
What do you think? E-mail me at email@example.com.