August 1, 2023
Clearing snow from coast to coast
How climate change is making a difficult job even harder
BY KARINA SINCLAIR
In midsummer, it feels difficult to focus on anything other than maintaining gardens, installing pools and building decks. Thanks to a voracious wildfire season and record-breaking temperatures across many provinces, the concept of winter is almost inconceivable; snow, freezing rain, and dramatic drops in mercury seem far, far away. Unless, of course, you’re a snow and ice management professional.
Planning for winter road maintenance is already underway in municipalities from coast to coast. Operations managers, public works crews, and private subcontractors are working together to improve road clearing best practices for public safety. Landscape Trades reached out to municipalities and private snow contractors across the country to learn more about the evolving challenges presented by a changing climate and winter weather.
To clarify, ‘weather’ and ‘climate” are not interchangeable terms. According to NASA, “weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere behaves over relatively long periods of time. When we talk about climate change, we talk about changes in long-term averages of daily weather.” These long-lasting shifts in weather patterns can have profound impacts on the environment, resources, and every living thing on the planet. It also means what worked in the past might not in the future.
Because of its northerly location, Canada experiences climate change at twice the average global rate, according to Natural Resources Canada. Across much of Canada, snow cover has decreased between five and 10 per cent since 1981, and according to Canada’s Changing Climate Report, it is likely that snow cover duration will decline due to warmer surface air temperature caused by emissions. Research from Environment Canada and Climate Change shows the seasonal average temperature for winter increased 3.3 C between 1948 and 2022. Populations in shifting climate zones are experiencing changes in typical weather conditions, such as the timing of freeze-thaw cycles or precipitation types, which means new challenges for snow and ice professionals.
Vancouver, B.C., with its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, has historically experienced mild winters with little snow. “This year was a very large year for us; we were over 80 centimeters of snow, which is a lot for Vancouver,” said Amy Sidwell, manager of street operations in Vancouver, “I would say we definitely are seeing more extreme weather events overall in the city of Vancouver and are monitoring these trends to see what we need to do to change our services.” Sidwell said they have a large municipal workforce that can pivot from other tasks to help clear roads during extreme snow events.
The maritime climate of New Brunswick means milder winters than continental climates, but the area does experience more cyclonic storms, such as Nor’easters. Don Morehouse, director of public works for the city of Moncton, N.B., says he’s noticed snow is starting later in the season. “When it does come, it comes over a very short period of time very quickly,” Morehouse said. “In a month, we can have four or five [storm] events come across in series.” This creates a challenge to find space to store large amounts of snow, instead of dealing with smaller amounts throughout the season. Morehouse also noted that some storms, especially near the start or tail-end of the season, seem to linger a whole day while bringing a messy mix of precipitation that also results in black ice.
The island city of Montreal, Que., is classified as having a humid continental climate and is notorious for cold, snowy winters — something residents seem rather proud of. “I’m convinced that we’re the best city when it comes to trying to remove the snow,” city spokesperson Philippe Sabourin said. “We’re dealing, all in all, with 190 centimeters of snow every season. We remove 12 million cubic meters of snow every winter. The big challenge for the city is rain during the winter, especially when we get warmer temperatures and we have a big swing heading back to the cold temperature. Then the rain turns to ice. That’s always a challenge.”
Rocco Spalvieri, grounds maintenance manager at International Landscaping Inc. in Milton, Ont., said warmer temperatures complicate storm predictability. “Each storm event now will include several types of precipitation. A storm may start as rain, change to freezing rain, back to rain, then wet thunder snow and finally finish with high winds and freezing temperatures,” said Spalvieri. This makes it challenging to coordinate response teams. “Timing when sidewalk crews, snow plowing and de-icing equipment is dispatched is critical to an effective snow plan.”
Forecasting fickle winter weather
Forecasting is key, but each municipality has a unique approach tailored to their local geography and residents’ expectations. The Vancouver operations team relies on their forecasting agency, which sends forecast updates four times a day during the winter. “Some of those forecasts will be as far out as a week in advance,” Sidwell said. “If we see that there’s going to be no rain for the next few days and snow is coming, then we’ll start doing brine or salting work a couple of days in advance just to make sure we can cover the whole city and get all that work done before the snow starts to fall.”
Montreal spokesperson Sabourin says they follow the forecast to deploy anti-icing crews as close to the weather event as possible. “Generally speaking, we’re spreading a few minutes before the rain or snow — just a few minutes before, not an hour before,” Sabourin said. “Otherwise the trucks and cars would remove the little rocks or the salt.”
In the Kitchener-Waterloo region of Ontario, James Mitchell, owner and operator of Mitchell Property Maintenance (MPM), cautions that a stormy forecast can prompt over-reaction. “We had a record number of freezing rain events in 2022/23 by early February — more than the past two seasons combined,” Mitchell said. “We’ve also had risk of weather causing action by contractors that was not required by the resulting weather, but fully justifiable by the forecast. If the weatherman is only right half of the time, that is about the same accuracy as the service actions provided by snow contractors.”
While Moncton uses meteorological forecasts for planning as well, the public works department and their sub-contractors also observe social media to gain a better sense of current conditions. “We are more in tune with the motorists,” Morehouse said. “They have a lot more ways to tell us when conditions are getting poor. It’s also a way to capture feedback on how well our service is working.”
Equipment and innovation
In addition to spreading salt and de-icer, snow clearing professionals are also adopting new equipment and technologies to improve their services. Montreal uses GPS to allow residents to track road clearing progress with their INFO-Neige mobile app, but also to collect data to better understand how efficiently they are adapting to climate change. “We’re always looking for new technologies and equipment that could be used by the city,” said Sabourin, and pointed out how the city has attached bigger trailers to the small trucks used on sidewalks so they can treat longer stretches of sidewalks with salt.
In Vancouver, they use ride-on units for clearing pedestrian paths, giving priority to bridges, sidewalks and 16 of their most-used bike routes. “We’ve also installed some remote weather information stations (RWIS), so those will give us road and air temperature information that helps us understand conditions throughout the city,” said Sidwell.
Like other cities, Moncton monitors conditions with RWIS and weather stations from Davis Instruments: “That gives us humidity, tracks freezing points, and shows what’s happening right now,” Morehouse said. They also use DICKEY-johns on their fleet to set salt application rates and every vehicle is equipped with road temperature sensors. This helps operators anticipate localized areas of black ice as they travel. The city is also looking at different kinds of plow blades that adjust to the roads’ surface so they can use more mechanical means of clearing snow as opposed to chemicals.
Ultimately, Morehouse says Moncton finds communication is one of their best tools for coping with major winter events. “We use social media to warn people to slow down, give yourself more time, don’t go out if you don’t have to,” Morehouse said, explaining that they’re very proactive about providing information to residents to set expectations. “When people are aware of some of the challenges that the operations are facing, then they understand. If you don’t communicate to your customer how you’re providing a service, I think you’re quickly going to affect the confidence they have in you.”
The changing climate will force communities to adapt, possibly at a faster rate than previously thought. With wild swings in temperature, messy precipitation mixes, and a growing concern about the impact of salt on the environment, road operations in the future might look very different.
Montreal now incorporates climate change with their conception of the street. “When we’re building a new street or doing construction, we take into consideration that we’re going to have to deal with more episodes of heavy rain during the summer and winter as well. So when we’re rebuilding the streets in Montreal, we’re building a bigger sewer, too, to be able to manage all of the rainwater. We’re also adding some bioretention basins that help redirect the rain into vegetation.” These basins, along with “water squares” incorporated into public spaces, help reduce flooding from blocked drains. Instead of overloading the sewers, the excess water benefits green spaces.
In Moncton, Morehouse thinks more focus on active transportation will reduce the pressure of clearing roads for private vehicles. This could mean facilitating pedestrian movement by creating more all-season bike lanes or creating accessible infrastructure that promotes the use of mass public transit. “I think we just have to always be adapting and be open to what works best for our city. We need to calibrate and track data and use that to make decisions based upon a trend versus a one-off,” Morehouse said. “You can’t work in a silo. Road authorities can’t work separately from planning. They can’t work separately from development. They can’t work separately from communication. We’ve got to work as a unit and you have to always have that plan B.”