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Snowbody's perfect!: La Niña winter exposes Seattle's road maintenance difficulties

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Photo courtesy of SDOT
Photo courtesy of SDOT

As global climate change continues to heighten previously unusual severe weather patterns, Seattle does not seem to have the infrastructural solutions it needs in the face of winter snowfall.

The city has a long history of unpredictable snow events. It averages 5.9 inches of yearly snowfall, but the scales tend to tip strongly in one direction: we either get close to none, or quite a lot. This irregularity often pairs with fluctuating lows in temperature.

This past Monday, Dec. 27, was Seattle's coldest day in 11 years, at 17 degrees. We even broke the record for largest temperature differential in a year that day: the highest temperature this year was 108 degrees on June 28, a 91-degree differential.

The intensity of this year's winter — including impressive rainfall statistics and chilly low temperatures — stems from a continuing La Niña weather pattern. La Niña events bring stronger trade winds than average, causing upwelling on the West Coast that brings cold surface waters and a more northern polar jet stream, which cause the severe rain and cold temperatures we are experiencing this year and is undoubtedly a cause of atypical winter storm conditions of late.

Photo courtesy of City of Seattle  

Why isn't Seattle prepared?
Considering the consistent evidence of Seattle's susceptibility to dangerous winter conditions for pedestrians, cars, and public transit, why is the city never prepared when snow arrives? Entire streets remain unplowed for days in the event of major snowfall. Bus lines that run through residential areas get suspended, with priority falling to 60 major lines that mostly provide service to downtown under King County Metro's "Emergency Snow Network." Our main line of defense is salt, which corrodes vehicles and leeches into local water systems.

Additionally, we do not have any dedicated snowplows; according to the City of Seattle's website, "trucks have to [be] outfitted with snow removal equipment when snow threatens," and "there are not enough of these trucks to plow every street in the city."

So why would the Seattle Department of Transportation not equip the city with enough plows to clear all of Seattle's roads? In 2019, deputy director of maintenance operations for SDOT Rodney Maxie told KING-TV that the city would need hundreds more plows to effectively clear everything beyond arterial roads, and more plows "wouldn't be cost effective for taxpayers." The hills of Seattle are an additional hurdle — some are too steep to be plowed.

It seems there are not any economically feasible and environmentally friendly solutions to large snow events in the Seattle area. Between massive fuel consumption by snowplows and toxic zinc and sodium buildup in freshwater systems from salting, maintaining Seattle's roads has reached a bit of a stalemate.

Photo courtesy of SDOT  

Possible future solutions include more environmentally friendly (and creative) solutions to salt, such as cheese brine, beet molasses, and even coffee grounds. But, for obvious reasons, many of these alternatives are more feasible on a personal level (i.e., for use around sidewalks and driveways).

Other posited solutions hinge on developments in snowplow technology and building streets and sidewalks with smarter materials. All of these are big-picture solutions that cannot be implemented overnight.

In the meantime, in Seattle, residents have some options to plan their commutes (or lack thereof) when the city is covered in snow.

"WSDOT Traffic" posts live updates on its Twitter account that document road closures, blockages, and accidents across the state. WSDOT also has a real-time travel data search tool at wsdot.com/travel/real-time/, where residents can search specific areas and roads to access live cams and information about road closures.

King County Metro's Emergency Snow Network is available online at kingcounty.gov, showing closures and route changes due to snowfall.

Seattle residents are encouraged to call (206) 386-1800 in the event of sewage backups, flooding, water issues, and leaking hydrants.

A map of warming shelters is available online, showing specific spots to take refuge in during inclement weather.

In the coming years, we may experience continuing unprecedented snowfalls. But with a lack of funding and other logistical obstacles, the city does not have the capacity to clear the roads in less than a few days' time. The best we can do for the time being is plan ahead and prepare accordingly.