Monday, February 4, 2019

Post Snowstorm Ice: The Winter Scourge of Western Washington

Transplants to our region from the central and eastern U.S. often laugh at the trepidation Northwesterners have for even a minor snowstorm.   We are told that in Michigan, Massachusetts, or XXX (fill in the blank), they LAUGH at a few inches of snow. Business stay open. Schools are never cancelled , etc.  And then the new Northwest resident smirks at the strong reaction of Puget Sound residents to even a few inches.  Sometimes even mocking.

Well, they simply don't understand.  In Michigan or whatever, the snow is generally powdery and dry.  Easily plowed.  And there rarely is much ice.


Not so in our area.  Ice is a huge threat and if local Department of Transportation don't pounce on roadway snow quickly, plowing and deicing aggressively, an ice layer will form that is not only difficult to remove, but a huge impediment to travel.

Ice that has destroyed the political careers of local politicians, like erstwhile Seattle Mayor Nickels.


The reason we have Godzilla-ice is easy to understand.  We live in a mild climate and the road temperatures are generally above freezing.    Then we get a rare snow event.  Snow falls on warm roadway and starts to melt into a slushy mess.  Many of our snow events include wet snow.  Then cold air pushes in from the Northwest through the Fraser River Valley gap and temperatures plummet--causing the ice to freeze into a coat that is treacherous and difficult to remove.

And then there are the hills, which make icy conditions even more dangerous and problematic.  It doesn't take a lot of snow to make things slippery and icy...a few inches of snow is enough.

Now experienced local departments of transportation know how to handle this situation.  First, they need to be on top of the forecasts and be ready to act.


Second, before a snow/cold event it is very useful to pre-treat the roadways with some kind of deicing or anti-icing solution-- or even road salt-- that decreases the freezing point and prevents any ice from bonding to the roadway.

Third, as soon as snow starts, plow the snow off aggressively and apply a second coat of deicer.

Walking on a side road this AM, the development of the ice layer was obvious.


Just as obvious was the difference between a treated roadway and one left alone.


 ______________________________

Finally, there have been a lot of comments about the European Center having a much better forecast than the U.S. GFS model for this event.  The truth is that the European Center also underplayed the situation.  For example here is the accumulated snow forecast for the event made last night (initialized at 4 PM Sunday).  A bit over 2 inches in Seattle....way too low and similar to the US model runs.


Now back to my nice cup of tea...


49 comments:

Andrew Christenson said...

"It's not a purse...its European."

Sandra Leigh said...

The transplants can laugh all they want. Whenever I see those videos of cars slipping and sliding on Seattle hills after a few inches of snow, I'm the one laughing. I'm laughing because I know that those are all transplants. Seattle natives know better.

Ironworker1994 said...

Hi cliff. After you enjoy your cup of tea. Can you tell us what you think about the snow event on thursday friday time frame.

Steve Snyder said...

I don't know what you are talking about Cliff. I grew in the DC area and the ice storms are legendary. We had more than our fair share of snow then freezing roads. Maybe in Michigan fluffy snow is a thing, but up and down the east coast, it's not.

Dave said...

My neighbor described last night as an ‘epic’ snowstorm.

Intersections were dicey north of Greenlake if only because people were driving too fast for conditions. I saw SUV’s blow through red lights - not quite straight as they struggled to control the vehicle.

Cedarspring said...

For the "Lea Hill in Auburn" commenter in the previous blog; we have a bit less than 3-inches here. That's an elevation about 400ft. Still snowing at 4pm.

Candy B said...

Even with a one inch forecast I stocked up on tons of food. I grew up in Wisconsin and drove years on snow and ice. But everyone there has cars that are ready for winter. And they know to slow down. Folks here simply do not know, or forget. One inch or 8 inches, it can still kill you. WSDOT and the media suggested today that if folks have no experience with snow, that they should stay home. Can they not broadcast this before the snow hits? One inch of snow on a hill can cause a tire to lose traction. In Wisconsin they lay down sand overnight. Here, not so much. The public just needs more education. One inch is a serious threat in an area without enough sanders and plows and experienced drivers. Why is that taken so lightly? Can we not emphasize that more? So bottom line, even if the amount of snow was forecast correctly, at one inch, there would still be spin outs, blocked interchanges, and unnecessary deaths. I am staying home tomorrow too. There is nothing worse than black ice for ending a life.

Unknown said...

Temperature prediction tonight for the northend now into the high teens...tomorrow morning is going to be an icy mess. Shady spots are already starting to get icier.

MAC in Bellingham said...

One advantage of the big wind, modest humidity, and very cold temperature here in Bellingham is the initial layer of ice sublimated relatively quickly in our neighborhood.

The big ice bugaboo is the most horrible of events: freezing rain. These protracted cold snaps have a way of ending this way.

I grew up in Portland reasonably close to the Columbia Gorge, so have been through these too many times.

Molly said...

Meanwhile we can mock and laugh when we go striding heartily like mountain goats up Seattle's steep streets, while they're lagging and gasping and sweating because their city has no hills like this anywhere. ;)

Jonathan Doe said...

Well said, Sandra.

db said...

I grew up in the Midwest, on the north side of Indianapolis in the 1960s and 70s. In those days, the city seemed to think it was too far south of the snow belt to invest in snow equipment. At least that’s what my dad told me. I only had a driver's license for two of those winters, 1976-77. The first of those it didn’t snow much. The next year we had plenty of snow. But I don’t remember being intimidated driving in it. Hills were far and few between. This limited experience didn’t prepare me for driving in Seattle.

It doesn’t snow as often in Seattle. But when it does, it seems the dumps can be greater if not as long-lasting. And as you mention, there are the issues of ice and the hills. It’s hard to drive in Seattle without encountering hills. And there seems to be a large mix of over- and under-confident drivers in the city. I think I’m more wary of the former.

One thing I noticed in later trips back to the Midwest to visit family, mostly in the summer, is that the city posted blue street signs with snowflake icons on them to indicate snow routes. Of course the signs are left up year-round. There’s an advantage to that. While driving down the street or sitting at a stoplight, one just might happen to notice those signs – even in mid-July – and if that happens often enough it might just stick in your mind. And when a future storm hits, you’ll know the streets most likely to be plowed. I sent an e-mail to SDOT with that idea several years ago. The then-Director of SDOT even responded with a positive reply, stating he thought it might be a good idea. But I never heard anything after that initial response.

mathbrown73 said...

4:49 PM, Edgewood, WA:
Has yet to cease snowing. It's beautiful.

mathbrown73 said...

5:07 PM, Edgewood, WA:
Spoke too soon. Beautiful snow stopped, now beautiful sunset and freezing cold temperature. Nice day to be retired, watched it all happen. Thank you for your usual accurate reporting.

Rabbits' Guy said...

I lived and drove quite a few years in Northern Lower Michigan with frequent (and lots of) "Lake Effect" snow. Flatter, sanded roads, stayed colder and not so icy, fewer people, once there it tended to pack down and stay and have some traction, people much more experienced with it and drove slower in snow.

BUT - just when you got your driveway shoveled out there came - again - blamo - that big plow staying ahead of the game!!!

Gonna be a cold night in BOW.

Penelope said...

"Were local transportation agencies aggressive enough for this event? I will let others decide."

Cliff, with all due respect, it's difficult to fault the DOT aggression this time around, given the egregious forecasts leading up to these events.

John Davis said...

All things are relative in weather as in life. If those from other climates are callous enough to not appreciate that, then I guess they can return to where they came from.

Unknown said...

People lose thier jobs because employers seem to think it's better to risk your life driving on black ice than to have fewer employees during these events. Employers should suck it up and actually give a rip about the human beings in thier employ by preemptively telling thier people to stay home and offer ways to work from home when possible. Workaholic small business owners just don't care about thier employees safety. If they don't care about us, why should we care about them?

Bob Triggs said...

I grew up in upstate New York and New England. There's plenty of ice, ice storms, rain on snow and ice, etc., back east. It's a maritime climate too. The big problem here is they don't treat the roads soon enough or well enough. They're almost always too little and too late.

Jonathan Doe said...

Perhaps this is part of the reason that Subaru vehicles are notoriously popular in the Northwest. My impression is that, given their AWD system and the right tires, they're better equipped than most to handle the kind of driving conditions we get during winter weather. Good winter tires and/or a 4WD/AWD vehicle are a must around here for those who need unfettered mobility during the kind of conditions we've seen recently. My 4x4 was a lifesaver during the cold/snow of December 2008 when the public transportation routes serving the area where I lived were suspended and many less well-equipped neighbors were quite literally stuck.

John K. said...

Steve - I agree completely. Grew up in the Midwest where we got ice storms. Heavy freezing rain that would bring tress down from the weight. You just learn how to get around in it. People here have no idea - they get stopped by the slightest challenge. It's pathetic.

Unknown said...

This could end up topping the 2008 event by the time it is all over. Seems like all local meteorologists are predicting another snow event later this week and 3rd snow event the middle of next week. They are also predicting that highs could stay at 40 degrees or below until the middle of the month with lows each night getting below freezing. Buckle up folks. Winter is here to stay for awhile !!!

Shahob Mousavi said...

Speaking of which im excited to see the discussion on the models for Wednesday night - Monday systems.

ryamkajr said...

Penelope,

Disagree. It is govts job to ne prepared AND to have contingency plans.

That is LITERALLY their primary function in regards to services provided (all services).

Westside guy said...

The late, great Johnny Carson grew up in the midwest. He used to joke that midwest drivers were no better at driving in snow than anyone else, they just weren't afraid to hit things. He said they liked it when they hit something because it meant they had stopped sliding!

Unknown said...

I live in rural Snohomish County. We got 9 inches. Love the snow. But the complaints about the local DOT's seem to have some validity as far as the road conditions go. Very often I see chemical applied to the roads around here, even when there is no snow forecasted, to help prevent black ice due to fog, etc... This year has been different. I have not seen any chemical applied to the roads around here over the last month or so. It was warm in general. I wonder if they got complaisant, maybe budget issues? Blaming the forecasters is stupid. I doubt that the folks who coordinate and deploy sand/chemical/plow trucks are waiting with baited breath to see what Cliff has to say or what King5 has to say. They should have been on top of this at least based on the general NOAA forecasts. Cold temps, and moisture are on the way? Prep the ROADS!

Organic Farmer said...

Utter bunk that other cities don't have hills or ice. It's a lack of investment in road equipment, and a lack of understanding by drivers.

I come from places that could be froze solid in October and thawed out in May.

Yes hills do exist outside of Seattle, and people drive on them. Schools generally only close for temperatures being greater than -20f not for snow, as it snows nearly every day in the Lake Superior snowbelt.

Oh ice? Try a couple of inches of super chilled rain on sub freezing surfaces... That's a showstopper even for the best equiped community.

Just enjoy the change of pace and drive less and cautious.

It is not fiscally logical for lowland communities to invest heavily in the equipment needed to effectively deal with our rare snow events.

Thecatguy93 said...

It's not a "Northwest" thing, it's a Puget Sound/western Washington thing. I grew up in Ellensburg and a few inches definitely was never a big deal. Most of the roads would typically be plowed by the time you got up in the morning. So places like Ellensburg, Leavenworth, Winthrop and Spokane for instance all laugh at a few inches of snow. 🤣

Jonathan said...

Side streets in Ballard are very icy. Any snow that was stepped or driven on has left an icy relief track, almost an inverted ice fossil, as the surrounding snow melted/evaporated. Bicycle tracks and dog prints are especially amusing. As a teechur, I have another snow day, time to don the yak traks and explore.

John Marshall said...

NOAA forecasters are talking about the potential for a repeat of Sunday/Monday on Fri/Sat -- except for more snow on the second event. Forecast guidance for Sequim is 12 to 18 inches total on Fri/Sat and we got about 8" out of the last storm.

If this happens, I suspect it will be very impactful given the likely amount of ice that may remain from Sunday's storm given what's on the ground now and the current Tue through Fri forecasts. Sounds like the potential for heavy snow falling on black ice to me... at least for the area around the Strait. Lovely.

Very interested in your thoughts, Cliff, as this new snow forecast develops.

Lt. Lothar Zogg said...

@ Rabbits' Guy,
I grew up in Spokane and well remember a number of very snowy mid-1960's winters where it was my job to shovel the driveway and then wait for the snowplow to come down our street, usually the next day, and go out and attack the wall of snow with a regular shovel. A snow shovel would not make a dent in that well-compressed snow!
It was good exercise out in the cold air.

Jeff Miller said...

Wow Dry snow in Michigan? You haven't been to the midwest in Winter. We get Ice storms that bring down power lines and stop lights and it messes up the traffic bad there, but work doesn't care, I've drive in blizzards to work in Michigan. People expect you in because it just happens every year.

HOWEVER

It is flat there, that's the major difference. Ice here on a hill is very different than Ice in metro Detroit on flat roads.

Alistair said...

Love your blog Cliff but I have to disagree with some of this one. I was a bicycle messenger in Washington D.C during the mid 90's and saw many an ice storm during that time. The streets of the city and the suburbs could be like ice rinks for days on end, with tree limbs hanging heavy, covered in clear ice.

Sharon Steinbis said...

And now they want to take away our studded tires!

Dave said...

There should be a constitutional amendment to give us the right to keep our studded tires!

Chuckanutter said...

NE Ohio lake effect snow can be very soggy. Ice storms hit every year. And the area is on the edge of the Allegheny Plateau. No mountains but plenty of hills. They just have platoons of snowplows and lots and lots of salt, brine, and beet juice for de-icing. Snow removal budgets are a significant portion of the budget

Phistor said...

I don't know why you folks are comparing ice storms (yes, I grew up in Connecticut and we had several giant ones every year) to snowstorms. Yes, freezing rain events are much worse to travel in. If this had been a freezing rain event on Sunday night things would be ten times worse right now.

Thing big difference is that snow events always start with wet roads that then freeze up underneath once there is a layer of snow on them. Even in mild-esh CT, plenty of snowstorms start when the surface temp is already below freezing. So you tiny snow drifts blowing along the surface of a road. When the snow gets heavier its easier to plow.

Also, big snowstorms back east can generate huge dumps of snow. I've been in DC and Philly on such occasions. With 2 feet of snow, very few people get out of their driveways (yes, I'm sure some of you managed to get out and drive every time and you will tell me about it below). Whereas here, the 2-3, 3-4 inches probably looks manageable in the neighborhoods, but not so once they happen upon the particularly icy sections. THEN some drivers lack of know-how does come into play, as in not keeping momentum going on a steeper hill and not allowing enough distance between the car in front.

Jonn-E said...

"before a snow/cold event it is very useful to pre-treat the roadways with some kind of deicing or anti-icing solution-- or even road salt-- "

SDOT hasn't really used de-icing solution in the last couple years; they switched entirely to much cheaper rock salt, which they use egregiously. There are roads in Seattle right now that look like packed snow but are actually bare pavement with a curb-to-curb 1/2" layer of crushed salt.

When the freshwater benthic communities in Seattle's creeks collapse due to the salinity spikes, let's be sure and thank Prof. Mass for his contribution. Welcome to the new rust belt.

Unknown said...

This is a good idea, destroys the road. Studless snow tires are just about as good on ice and way better in wet. Overall, much better and less noise!

Shorty said...

When I moved out here in 97 I couldn’t get over this weather. Rain? In the dead of winter? And cool in the dead of summer? No mugginess

And what they called a storm. I had a good kick out of that. We have winds like that all the time on the praries. Out here they called a rain/wind event a “storm” That was hilarious to me. Now I’m a local and I call it a storm too. Lolol.

CT said...

Any news on this upcoming snow event? Timing, location, accumulation?

Ian Reed said...

We need a higher resolution model that focuses on the effect that the local topography plays.

And you would think AI/machine learning would be something you could implement into weather modeling.

Ward said...

"...they simply don't understand. In Michigan or whatever, the snow is generally powdery and dry. Easily plowed. And there rarely is much ice." -- This is just wrong. Sure, if the temperature is well below freezing, the snow is powdery. But often, and anywhere, the temperatures are NOT well below freezing and it snows, and inevitably, the snow packs, or melts and refreezes, and ice builds up. This not to mention the nearly annual freezing rain events. Anywhere there's winter, there's ice.

"then there are the hills" Certainly that makes things worse here. But there are hills plenty of places, even in northern Michigan, in the northeast and east central US, and anywhere from Montana/Wyoming/Colorado/Utah and west. They get ice, and most of those places manage better, except in regions where it doesn't happen often, say the Carolinas, Tennessee or north Georgia.

"experienced local departments of transportation know how to handle this situation." Here, he's right, and that is much of the difference, between Seattle and Michigan or most other places, for example. It's not that transportation folks don't know how to handle it, necessarily, but Seattle and surrounds don't invest in it. They are rarely on top of the forecast, and if an event hits, they can't keep up for lack of personnel and equipment. So we just shut down, and live with dangerous driving conditions until it melts.

I really wish the DOT in the various communities in and around Seattle would be more aggressive about treating roads.

Bob Triggs said...

You can not blame the incompetence of the highway departments on Dr Mass.

Ellen Baker said...

I'm originally from Pittsburgh, PA (been here 45 years) - but I do remember winter snow there collecting all winter, lake effect snow and ice building up in layers we could build igloos on and tunnels under. We'd skate on frozen lakes, and I learning to drive (stop, and restart) on steep Pittsburgh hills every bit as steep as Seattle's worst. Can it be equally treacherous here? Yes, indeed. Our overnight low was 5'F last night here in Glacier, and it's too cold for the snow and ice to melt and clear. As for 4WDs and such, many learn the hard way that "It's not how fast you can go, but how fast you can stop" that matters. Never dumped or ditched (yet), knock on wood.

Keep us posted about incoming - much appreciated!!

Ellen Baker said...

For those not familiar with Pittsburgh's terrain and snows, copy and paste this link into your browser. Nostalgic!

http://pittsburghskyline.com/content/2013/01/11/pittsburgh-snow-winter-2013/

Eric said...

Yeah, I wanted to say these things as well. I grew up in NW Ohio and spent most of my life there or southern Michigan. Powdery, easy to move snow was not particularly common except in the coldest situations. Eight inches of heavy, wet snow was plenty common, and no fun to move even with a snowplow. The further north you went, the more powder you could expect, but you then got the wet stuff earlier and later.

The four inches we have here in Everett probably would have given us a snow day back in Toledo, but only one. I won't be surprised if my kids have a third snow day tomorrow.

But there definitely is an issue of preparation, though it's a gamble. This is the first significant snow I've seen since we moved here, four winters. Keeping huge stocks of salt/de-icer isn't a good choice when you only get this stuff every few winters. But man I was confused going to the hardware store and seeing barely 3 meters of shelf space (and only the bottom shelf) after living where wven the corner drugstore would have had 3 or 4 tons of rock salt and calcium chloride. (A hardware store would have had 10 tons visible and more in the back!)

Unknown said...

It is the platoons of plows, and the will that are absent. Was in NH during their most recent big snow event. Plenty of wet snow; plenty hills. 24 hr later, not only the major roads but secondary & tertiary. They pretreat, post-treat and plow. The State has the big plow trUcks for the main roads, but everyone w/ a truck or a 4wd seems to own a blade and a hydraulic system to lift n lower it. And folks budget good money for paying for driveways, farmyards, shopping centers, and gravel roads up into little hill towns to be scraped. U get what u are willing to pay for.

Anna Goodwon said...

Idk about anywhere else, but Seattle has narrow residential streets. So narrow that only 1 car can drive down it. If someone is getting in or out of their parked car the person driving has to stop. When a street is that narrow, with many cars parked tightly on each side, and the roads are often hills with wet snow or ice...... that leaves ZERO room to slide even the slightest