By now you've probably seen lots of photos of snow banks covering cars, homes and cats as New Englanders brave an historic winter. But where does a city like Boston, with its maze of narrow colonial streets, put nearly 100 inches (and counting) of snow? The last-ditch answer for cities and towns all along the New England coast is a longing glance to the east: the ocean.
From a public safety perspective it's a clear decision, but what about the impact on coastal waters? Isn't a lot of nasty stuff mixed into the snow that's plowed off the streets? Indeed it is! Let's review:
Salt: Road salt is a bastard. Even Donald Trump hates it. We dump about 137 pounds of the stuff per person every year onto US roads, and it all ends up running off into oceans, lakes and rivers where it harms plants and animals.
Sand: Doesn't sand make roads and sidewalks less slippery? Let's use that instead of salt! No, let's not because sand is also terrible. In fact, some researchers say it's worse than salt because the sand that washes off roads doesn't dissolve and ends up smothering aquatic habitat for animals at the bottom of the food chain.
Stuff on the street: Just about anything left on the road is a trickster. Think about it: dripping oil, dog poop, plastic bags and other garbage. You don't want any of it in your harbor, and yet off it goes along with all that pretty snow that gets dumped into the ocean.
Here's the thing: all the contaminants described above end up in the ocean, rivers, lakes and groundwater anyway, no matter what we do with the snow. (Minus the beach chairs and scraps of lumber used to mark hard-earned, shoveled-out parking spots. It’s a weird Boston thing.) As the snow melts it carries all of the street, sidewalk and parking lot filth with it as it flows into the nearest water body, whether directly or via storm drains. This happens all year long after every rain or snow, hence the need for frequent street cleaning. As one oceanographer puts it, "If people are worried about debris from the streets getting into the harbor, they should worry about it the rest of the year too – not just this day."
So don't judge northeastern towns that push their record-breaking burden of snow into harbors (as long as they keep it out of wetlands and reservoirs). Scientists are searching for better ways to use less salt and sand to keep winter roads passable – beet juice or cheese brine, perhaps? – and the rest of us can do our part by keeping our garbage off the streets so we don’t meet up with it again on the first day of beach season.