December 16, 2021
Lee GouldRecently, it was difficult to turn on the TV or listen to the radio without hearing about the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland. 

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, more commonly referred to as COP26, was the 26th event, held from Oct. 31 to Nov. 13. This meeting featured many of the world’s political and thought leaders, all with varying knowledge, opinions and ambitions surrounding climate change.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, COP26 was delayed for a year and while the outcomes from the two-week gathering have and will be debated, what is clear is those with an interest in winter maintenance are experiencing major changes that appear to correlate to climate change.

A lay person might wrongfully assume that a warming planet will see a decrease in the need for snow and ice management, but the reality is exactly the opposite. As with warmer months, the winter storms we are experiencing are often more severe and unpredictable. For example, the term “polar vortex” has entered our lexicon.

The deep freeze that gripped much of the United States and Canada in late January 2019 has been blamed on a “polar vortex.” With this weather event, we saw a dramatic decrease in temperatures. So much so that hundreds of schools, colleges and universities in the affected areas were closed. Around 21 people died in the United States due to severe frostbite. States within the Midwest region of the U.S. had wind chills just above -45 C. At these extreme temperatures, the ability of many deicing media to effectively work as desired is significantly compromised, frostbite can occur within a few minutes of exposure, and machines that are typically used to plow snow struggle to operate in such cold.

The polar vortex is also thought to have had effects in Europe. For example, the 2013–14 United Kingdom winter floods were blamed on the polar vortex, while bringing severe cold in the United States and Canada. Similarly, the severe cold in the United Kingdom in the winters of 2009-10 and 2010-11 were also blamed on the polar vortex.

While extreme weather events necessitate a re-thinking about what winter maintenance management practices should be deployed, they aren’t the entire story behind the impact climate change is likely having on winter maintenance plans.

As the weather changes, we’re seeing more freeze-thaw cycles. Warming temperatures through the day melt snow and ice, which will often re-freeze when temperatures drop overnight. This means greater care and attention to how parking lots and walkways are constructed. It also means winter maintenance professionals are likely to spend more time addressing ice build-up to mitigate slip and fall claims. 

From an environmental standpoint, we’re seeing more salt applied, which has many associated negative impacts on the environment and infrastructure. Necessary changes to winter maintenance practices also impact the bottom-line: More attention to winter maintenance resulting from more freeze-thaw cycles means more money is being spent on people, equipment and products.

So, while our leaders continue to meet and debate climate change, winter maintenance contractors, facility owners and others are already experiencing the negative impacts of changing climate. 
Lee Gould
Executive Director, Smart About Salt Council