This week's East Coast blizzard that shuttered airports and trapped subway riders was just the latest in a long technological battle by modern cities against snow, as the National Snow and Ice Data Center reminds us. — Ed.
Snowstorms have historically plagued many states, notoriously those located in the Northeast and Midwest. Winter storms occur all over the country, but the "Snowbelt," stretching across the Great Lakes from Minnesota to Maine, receives the brunt of winter storms. Just as the first settlers on New England's shores struggled to survive the brutal snowstorms, so do the inhabitants of today's metropolises. Cities such as Buffalo, New York City, Milwaukee and Detroit experience snowfalls that strand residents in snow deep enough at times to be measured in feet rather than inches.
Officially, the National Weather Service defines a blizzard as large amounts of falling OR blowing snow with winds in excess of 35 mph and visibility of less than 1/4 of a mile for an extended period of time (greater than 3 hours). German settlers in Iowa originally coined the word blizzard, coming from the word blitzartig, meaning "lightning-like." European pioneers and settlers were astounded by the severity of the winters in the New World. Although accustomed to snow in their homelands, they were newly confronted with driving winds and freezing temperatures characteristic of Snowbelt regions.
Early East Coast settlements received their share of blustery storms and were battered by a series of harsh winters. Not only was the snowfall deep, but the weather was extremely cold, often freezing the bay around Boston and rivers to south as well. However, most travel was by foot, so many early storm fatalities occurred when coastal ships were caught in winter gales. Perhaps the most pressing problems for new settlers entailed shortages of wood and coal for heating homes.
As the towns grew and established routes for travel and postal service, several storms in the early 1700's rendered the roads impassable and hindered communications. A 1717 storm dumped three to four feet of snow, which in some places drifted to 25 feet. The journey from New York to Boston was almost impossible; the single successful post runner abandoned horseback for snowshoes. For over a hundred years, this storm was known as "The Great Snow." Other, less severe, snowstorms followed over the years, accompanied by the usual winter hardships. In 1741, frozen waterways and harbors resulted from a severe and very cold snowstorm, curtailing shipments along the East Coast for over a month.
Although severe weather hindered commerce, residents learned from their experiences. City residents began stockpiling firewood and other supplies in advance of winter disasters. For those who couldn't afford enough wood or coal to warm their homes through the winters, several charities came to their aid. To improve travel, horse carts and coaches were installed with ski-like runners in wintertime, which were better able to handle snowy conditions than wheels. Of course, parties of revelers often took advantage of the snowy roads and ice-covered rivers, which proved excellent for sleigh rides.
Weather-watchers in rural areas and cities kept wary eyes on temperature and air pressure, and provided a climatological record as well as weather diaries for future reference. Beginning in the 1820s, they sent records to the Smithsonian Institution where the various reports were collected in an attempt to analyze and forecast weather. Reports were also relayed to the public via newspapers and telegraph dispatches.
As populations grew and commerce needs expanded, wintertime blizzards began to present more critical problems to city dwellers who relied on frequent deliveries of food and supplies. In severe winters, intercity roads and railways were often blocked for weeks at a time. Ice-jammed waterways prohibited coastal shipments as well. Fire hazards became a worsening problem, due not only to increased congestion of stoves and fireplaces, but also due sometimes to the extremely low temperatures that froze water in the tanks and hoses of the firefighting equipment.
Early attempts at snow control simply involved citizens going into the streets to level the drifts for sleigh traffic. Ordinances in many cities required homeowners to clear their sidewalks of snow, but snow removal was not yet practiced on a citywide basis. In order for residents to travel by carriage, or for merchants to receive goods (and customers), they were responsible for clearing their own streets. Snow shovelers were frequently hire to do this for them. As a result, wintertime travel in the early 1800s was still mostly by foot.
As the 1800s progressed, new buildings and new technologies were put to the test by severe winter storms. Heavy, wet snow collapsed roofs and suspension bridges. Gale-force winds mangled telegraph and electrical lines and downed poles, increasing the threat of electrocution and electrically sparked fires. Cities like Milwaukee, Chicago and New York responded to these new problems, enacting new codes to ensure that buildings could withstand the combined forces of snow and wind. Public officials and residents alike called for putting existing and future telegraph wires underground to avoid further safety hazards.
Enterprising inventors were issued the first patents for snow plows in the 1840s, but several years passed before the plow designs were put to use. One of the first mentions of snow plow use comes from Milwaukee in 1862. The plow was attached to a cart pulled by a team of horses through the snow-clogged streets. Over the next several years, horse-drawn plows gained popularity and came into use in many other Northeastern cities. Intercity steam trains, having made their appearance several years earlier, now puffed and whistled their way through heavy drifts with giant plows attached to their front ends. Salt was used in a few cities, but was strongly protested because it ruined the streets for sleighing and damaged the shoes and clothing of pedestrians. However, the invention of the snow plow initiated widespread snow removal efforts in cities and also created a basis for municipal responsibility in snow removal.
Plows were a boon to city dwellers, enabling winter transportation to recover more rapidly from storms than in previous years. However, this solution was accompanied by a new round of problems, some of which remain with us today. Plowing cleared the main streets for traffic, but effectively blocked the side roads and sidewalks with huge, uneven mounds of compacted snow. Businessmen and townsfolk initially hailed the success of the plow, but later complained and even brought lawsuits against the plowing companies. Merchants claimed that their storefronts were completely blocked with mounds of plowed snow, making them inaccessible to their customers, and pedestrians bemoaned trying to negotiate the huge mounds which often obstructed the sidewalks. Sleigh drivers also found fault with the plowing system because of the ruts and uneven surfaces it created.
New York and other cities responded in several ways. They hired horse-drawn carts and shovelers to work in conjunction with the plows, hauling away the plowed snow and dumping it into rivers. This not only cleared the mounds of snow, but provided thousands of temporary jobs throughout the winter season. In an effort to curtail the use of salt, which many still protested, streets and icy bridges were coated with sand instead. To appease all sides, New York in the 1880s built elevated steam railways along the major routes of the city, high enough that they would not be affected by the drifts. Still in operation today, these elevated tracks proved very successful, and carried travelers through all but a few of the most severe storms. Prior to the invention of the subway, the elevated trains were often the only transport service available in storms that halted all ground travel.
In spite of these advances in their struggle against snow, the notorious "Blizzard of 1888" literally paralyzed the Northeast after three days of snow, wind and freezing temperatures. Two-and-a-half to four feet of snow fell, and drifts were reported to cover entire first stories of buildings. Carts and carriages in the streets were abandoned and buried by snow as drivers realized the futility of their endeavors. Schools, city railroads and public offices were closed, and even New York's elevated railways were victim to the mounting drifts. A mile's worth of passenger trains headed for New York were trapped for two days in drifts exceeding 20 feet. Tragically, over 400 people lost their lives in this storm.
Following the 1888 blizzard, cities recognized the need for more organized snow removal and looked for ways to avoid some problems altogether. Previously, city officials often waited until storms were nearly over to begin snow removal, but now realized that taking action during the first stages of a storm produced better results and more rapidly cleared roads. To combat the snow more effectively, cities were divided into sections and assigned to plow drivers. Increased numbers of plows cleared the streets with more efficiency. Driven by the ferocity of that blizzard, city officials were also more determined to bury communication wires and create alternative methods of transportation, such as trains and subways, that wouldn't be hindered by drifting snow.
Steam trains were fairly effective at clearing their own tracks when equipped with plows. However, for shorter inner-city transport, cities tried electric trolleys with plows, which proved to be unsuccessful. Several northeastern cities had long toyed with the idea of underground railways, but in the wake of the blizzard, it was an idea whose time had come. Boston installed the first stretch of subway tracks in 1899. New York followed with its own subway five years later, and both cities extended their lines significantly over time.
While some of the snowiest places in the West were (and still are) in remote, relatively uninhabited places, there were incidents of travelers getting caught in winter storms, often with grim consequences. In October 1846, at the beginning of what is still considered to be a record snow season, George Donner, leading a group across the Truckee Pass, just north of Tahoe City, Calif., was surprised by an early winter blizzard. Within eight days, forty-foot drifts had accumulated, trapping the group in the mountains. They weren't rescued until April 1847, and by then only 47 of the initial 87 remained alive amid reports of cannibalism. In winter 1873, Alferd Packer and several other gold seekers trekked into the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. Trapped in severe winter weather, months later, only Packer returned. When the bodies of the remaining men were found, evidence indicated that they had been cannibalized by Packer, for which he was tried and convicted.
Although the sparsely populated West was not as drastically affected as the eastern metropolises, the western states also received a fair share of winter storms. In the western part of the country railroads provided a significant source of transportation especially for the mountain mining industries. Subways and elevated rails were just not practical for the vast plains and mountain passes, so steam trains battled drifts with giant rotary plows, plowing snow and blowing it away at the same time. Ranchers erected snow fences, which protected roads and prevented snow from drifting too high on their property. The burgeoning population centers of the West, such as Denver, Salt Lake City, and Seattle, soon acquired snow removal equipment to battle the winter storms. However, they were often able to rely on the sun or mild weather to melt heavy snowfalls, as they still do today.
Motorization swept the country with amazing speed in the early 20th century, leading to motorized dump trucks and plows as early as 1913. Many cities rushed to motorize their snow removal fleets, abandoning most of their horse-drawn carts. In conjunction with the new trucks, cities began to use Caterpillar tractors equipped with plow blades. To haul the snow away, they used steam shovels, cranes, and railway flatcars to get the snow off the streets and dumped into the rivers. In spite of the technological advances, manual shovelers also continued to be hired as part of the winter work force.
Another motorized invention, the Barber-Green snowloader, was successfully tried in Chicago in 1920, and several cities purchased snowloaders that same winter. The snowloader was an ingenious contraption. Riding on tractor treads, it was equipped with a giant scoop and a conveyor belt. As the snow was plowed, it was forced up the scoop, caught by the conveyor belt which carried it up and away from the street into a chute at the top where it was dropped into a dump truck parked underneath. It effectively made snow removal easier and more effective for the cities by making the process much less labor and time intensive.
Early aviation development also advanced the snow removal technology. Runways needed to be kept especially clear, prompting the first small airports to find solutions. Salt was effective only on ice and light snowfalls, and plowing mounds of heavy snow was time-consuming. To combat the snow even before it hit the ground, snow fences were constructed on the windward sides of the runways, effectively trapping snow and preventing it from blowing onto the runways. Light snow dustings were simpler to control.
New fleets of dump trucks and tractor plows were very expensive for cities to purchase and maintain, but the amount of revenue lost if the streets were not cleared was by far more expensive than snow removal equipment. As cities and businesses provided urban populations with a wide variety of goods and services on a daily basis, they were struck a financial blow when a large snowfall debilitated transportation and prohibited customers from reaching them.
It was in fact the popularity of the motorcar that would create a whole new set of problems for snow removal crews. By 1925, over seventeen million cars were registered, vastly increasing the demand for dry, safe streets. As motorcars took to the streets in force, public safety demanded snow removal efforts even for snowfalls less than four inches. Due to increased dependence on the automobile, not only main thoroughfares needed clearing, but residential streets as well. Scenic snowfalls once reminiscent of winter merrymaking became unbearable, and the freezing weather once welcomed by sleigh parties create hazardous driving conditions. Automobile accidents were rapidly rising due to weather-related conditions.
Slick layers of ice left behind by snow plowing, renewed demands for salt and sand use. No longer concerned about protests, city public works officials used salt by the ton to ease road conditions, and also experimented with cinders and sand. Motorized salt spreaders became the primary tool in fighting snowy roads, and businesses and private citizens as well used tons of salt to keep driveways, sidewalks and access routes clear of snow and ice. However, several cities in the Great Lakes region were unable to use salt due to the extremely frigid weather that rendered salt almost ineffective. In any city, while salt works well on icy roads or minimal snowfall, it does little good against deep snow.
Parked and abandoned vehicles posed the other great problem faced by snow removal crews. Urban streets now provided parking places, which in winter months hampered snowplowing efforts. Desperately needing to clear the streets, plows ended up packing huge, compacted drifts against parked cars, forcing unwary owners to dig them out. Realizing there was a conflict, city ordinances were created, banning overnight parking for certain city areas, or posting signs marking snow plow routes, where parking would be banned when plows were in use. Many of these ordinances are still in effect throughout major cities, increasing the efficiency and thoroughness of plowing efforts.
Along highways, severe blizzards stranded motorists who often abandoned their vehicles, creating nightmares for plowing crews who tried to clear around lumps of snow-covered cars. Conceding defeat, snow removal efforts in this case were (and still are) forced to tip their hats to Mother Nature. Today, winter weather still catches commuters unprepared, and inevitably highways become littered with stalled and abandoned cars during blizzards. As in the storm of 1996 that paralyzed the East Coast, several states have required federal assistance from time to time, in the form of financial aid and the aid of National Guard troops to clear streets and help remove cars from highways.
Well after automobile use had become widespread, shopping centers, office parks and industrial centers saw the need for private snow removal equipment of their own to clear parking lots for their employees and customers. This created a market for smaller, customized equipment, and spurred technology to develop more specialized functions. Smaller plows and snow blowers were also in growing demand by private residents who sought to escape the rigors of the old-fashioned snow shovel.
In 1959, space technology entered the snow removal effort, and satellites observed and relayed climate and weather conditions, allowing for more accurate storm forecasting. While attempts at forecasting had been made earlier through weather-watchers using telegraphs, phones, and radios to communicate, this system could not be relied on with nearly as much accuracy. Cities were able to brace themselves in advance for severe winter weather and prepare for snow removal efforts. Also, increased use of media such as radio and television helped keep the public aware of impeding hazardous situations. Most of us realize how critical this has proven in our own lives, as many of us have been able to change or curtail our plans due to televised weather forecasts warning us of incoming storms, potential snowfall amounts, temperatures and wind chill factors.
As snow removal efforts progressed, protests against salt renewed, supported both by environmentalists and motorists whose cars were being corroded by years of heavy winter salt use. Environmental experts discovered in the late 1960s that salt use was corroding cars, damaging roadside plant life, polluting water supplies (including drinking water supplies), and killing fish in streams. Motorists were weary of repairing car corrosion after each winter, and road crews were discovering that salt was corrosive to roads and bridges as well. Improved salt spreaders resulted from these finds, using more efficient spreading gauges.
Within the past twenty years, cities have been met with new problems, often results of solutions to previous problems. For instance, weather reports conveniently forewarn people of incoming storms and deep-freezes. Unfortunately, this often leads to careless judgments; thinking they can outrun a storm, people become stranded at stores or in traffic when the blizzard hits in force. Not only is this frustrating for those wishing to get home, but the resulting traffic jams also impede plowing efforts. Several cities have needed to call states of emergency, and restrict driving to only emergency cases.
One of the less obvious problems faced by cities is the high cost of snow removal. For instance, costs in Montreal, Canada, exceed $60 million per season. There, up to 2,000 workers operate vehicles and spread salt to clear the streets. While each city will vary in what type of equipment and what it needs to spend, snow removal has become a large factor in annual city budgets. Cities like Denver and Salt Lake can rely on sunshine to melt the piles of snow left along the sides of streets after plowing. Northeastern and Snowbelt cities, however, need to account for not only plowing and salting, but hauling the snow away since it may not melt rapidly enough. On top of this, each season brings new surprises; a winter with mild temperatures and little snowfall may be followed by a winter with several severe snowstorms.
Another recent problem is that of driver carelessness. Drivers should take extra precautions when driving in each new storm, even after roads have been salted or plowed. In congested city traffic defensive driving becomes critical during inclement weather. While four wheel drive vehicles have received criticism for the false sense of security they provide, they have become a necessity for mountain residents, offering better traction and handling on snow-packed roads. Motorists need to be completely aware of road conditions (icy, slushy, snowpacked, etc.). They should keep in mind any possible hazards and plan in advance for them. Motorists need to choose alternate routes when inclement weather makes normal routes treacherous and leave enough time to account for slower driving speeds and possible traffic jams. Carrying sacks of sand or kitty litter comes in handy to spread on slick spots. Those living in remote areas might want to keep spare equipment in their car or truck, such as shovels, flashlight, matches, blankets, spare clothes, food and water, in the event of becoming stranded in a storm.
You may not be able to avoid living in a snowstorm prone region, but there are ways you can avoid becoming a victim of blizzards and winter storms. Stay inside if you are home, and except for emergencies, don't leave until the storm has abated. Deaths are often caused indirectly by storms, due to traffic accidents and hypothermia (caused by overexposure to cold weather). While shoveling snow, be sure to take frequent breaks. This will not only help your sore muscles, but may also prevent any chance of a heart attack, which can be triggered by rigorous shoveling. It is ideal to stock your house even before winter begins, with non-perishable food, medicine, bottled water, baby items, wood, batteries, matches and candles. Blizzards are notorious for defying weather forecasts and arriving early, so don't wait until the day or morning before a blizzard is expected to strike to stock up on essential supplies.
If you are caught in a storm and your vehicle is immobilized, remain in or near your car or truck unless you can see a source of help. You may want to get out and clear the exhaust pipe to prevent possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning. Also, set flares, tie a bright piece of cloth to the antenna, or raise the hood of your car to make yourself visible and increase your chance for rescue. Once you have done this, get back in your vehicle and remain inside. Crack a window for ventilation. Turn on the engine for ten or fifteen minutes every hour for heat, and try to keep your blood circulating by exercising from time to time, moving arms, legs, fingers and toes.
In January, the "Blizzard of 1996" hit the southeastern states and worked its way up to the northeastern states, claiming over 100 lives and forcing nine northeastern and southern states to declare a state of emergency. Snowfall amounts ranged from one to four feet, with Virginia and West Virginia hit the hardest. Several states made nonemergency driving illegal, and most major airports were closed for at least a day or two, canceling thousands of flights.
A week later, while many cities were still digging out, two new storms struck the Eastern Seaboard, bringing up to a foot of additional snow. Around New York City, a church roof and two store roofs collapsed from the added weight of the new snow. For several days afterwards, many travelers were forced to trudge long distances through hip-deep snow to get to subway and train stations, as not all roads had been adequately cleared for busses or cars.
Mother Nature continues to best our human endeavors. A 1958 New York report stated that rain was falling on the ground, yet guards were making snowballs atop the 1150 foot Empire State Building. The winter of 1977 proved especially harsh worldwide. In Buffalo, New York, snow drifts were so compacted by wind that plow blades broke trying to clear them, and halfway across the world in Japan, record heavy snows collapsed over 200 roofs. Arctic weather dipped to the southernmost part of the United States in 1985, blanketing San Antonio with 13 inches of snow, and dusting several other southern cities with snow as well. On March 13, 1993, the "White Hurricane" pummeled the entire eastern seaboard, resulting in 92 deaths. Syracuse and Boston broke snowfall records that year, and New York city struggled with snow and ice for two weeks after the storm. No doubt the Blizzard of '96 will top records across the Northeast once again. And, as recent pleas for snow shovelers testify, the good old-fashioned snow shovel continues to be one of the most effective, time-honored tool for digging out our nation's cities.
Snowbelt cities dominate the list, but others, such as Denver, Salt Lake City, Omaha and Seattle also receive significant amounts of snowfall. Buffalo maintains the all-time high for snowfall in a single season, holding the record at 199 inches, all of which accumulated during the 1976/77 winter. Rochester, New York, comes in second, with 161 inches in a season, and Portland, Maine, comes in third with 141 inches in a single season. These three cities also carry some of the highest monthly totals in snowfall as well. The recent Blizzard of 1996 may help topple a few seasonal snowfall records.
In the Midwest and West, Salt Lake City, Utah, Anchorage, Alaska, and Denver, Colorado, have each received around a 100 inches or more in their record high seasons. These record highs are for cities only; however, remote mountain areas and smaller towns have received higher snowfall amounts. Paradise Ranger Station in Washington State has received over 1000 inches (or 85 feet) of snow in a single season. Sites along the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada Mountains also receive between 400 and 800 inches (or 33 to 66 feet) in a season.
Photo Credit: Drew Hallowell / Getty Images; Mark Lennihan / AP; Ephemeral New York
This story was written by Laura Cheshire and edited by Roger G. Barry, Annette Varani, and Mike Meshek. It originally appeared in The National Snow And Ice Data Center in 1997 and was republished with permission.
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