Tuesday, February 16, 2010


"Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind."

Those eloquent words were written by Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley, who in 1885 became the first person to photograph a single snow crystal. He would go on to photograph more than 5000 snowflakes and make the discovery that no two snowflakes are alike.

In the aftermath of a recent blizzard it’s difficult to think of snow in such a poetic manner. In reality, snow is a mineral, just like salt or even diamonds. At the center of a snowflake is a speck of dust that can contain anything from an outer space particle to volcanic ash. As the snowflake forms around that speck, its shape is altered by humidity, temperature and wind. A snow crystal can be 50 times as wide as it is thick. According to Guinness World Records, the largest snowflake ever recorded was a 15-incher that besieged Fort Keogh, Montana, in 1887.

As Bentley documented with his photographs, individual snowflakes can be beautiful, but blizzard conditions make for dangerous roadways. Although snow and ice are bad for driving, these natural substances pose no threat to our environment. The methods we use to remove snow and ice, however, can be harmful to our natural resources.

Because it is readily available, effective, and inexpensive, salt is typically the first line of defense to make our roadways safer. Yes, salt is a natural resource, but excess salt can saturate and destroy soil’s natural structure and result in erosion. High concentrations of salt can damage and kill vegetation - a vital buffer between land and water - and pose a serious threat to fresh water ecosystems and fish. Excess salt can also get into our groundwater and runoff into reservoirs affecting our drinking water.

At home we can avoid using salt on our driveways, sidewalks and walkways. When possible, shoveling immediately after the snow stops falling is a good idea. If you’re unable to do so or prefer not to shovel, consider investing in an electric snow blower. True, electric models consume energy, but unlike gas blowers they don’t emit greenhouse gases.

Alternatives to salt for traction include sand or even birdseed (which has the extra benefit of providing food for birds at a time when they really need it). Although these substances won’t melt snow or ice, they will provide a better grip on slick surfaces. Avoid products that contain nitrogen-based urea. Not only are such products more costly, they don’t work when temperatures fall below 20-degrees. Moreover, when urea is applied to the ground it eventually runs off into the street, into storm drains and ends up in our waterways.

To help prevent surface water contamination, snow should be piled in an area that has an adequate depth of soil between the ground level and the water table. The soil and vegetation will act as a filter for pollutants in the melting snow. Always avoid plowing snow into surface waters or near storm drains

We are unaccustomed to blizzard conditions in our area. Still, we should be informed on how best to handle such an abundance of snow and ice so we can protect our abundant natural resources all winter long.

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