Are We Prepared for the Winter of 2017?

The 2015 and 2016 seasons widened the extreme weather spectrum in Rhode Island.

Off Jefferson Boulevard, under the east and westbound lanes of Route 37, lies a small mountain of salt, the size of a four-bedroom Colonial with a garage. About forty feet high, eighty feet wide and thirty feet long, weighing in at 20,000 tons and costing $1.26 million, the pile is a response to the Great Salt Panic of  ’15, when winter smashed a big snowball in Rhode Island’s face for six consecutive weeks.

The state Department of Transportation (DOT) came to call those weekly storms “snow shovel Monday.” Many of us called them something that cannot be printed in a general circulation magazine.

Total snowfall in the capital of Providence topped seventy-six inches, making it the second snowiest season on record. Salt stores were tight, and some cities and towns complained that the state had monopolized the supply, says Joe Bucci, the state DOT’s highway maintenance operations engineer.

The Strategic Salt Reserve debuted just before the following Thanksgiving. One month later, Rhode Islanders were celebrating Christmas Eve in shirtsleeves, as the high hit 69 degrees. That meteorological winter — December through February — was Providence’s warmest on record. The state never once had to tap into the reserve.

“We didn’t have any nicknames for last winter. It was pretty normal,” says Bucci.

Will the winter of 2016–2017 humble this mountain?

The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts temperatures slightly above normal, along with precipitation and snowfall. The meteorologists at the National Weather Service are more noncommittal on winter’s track. In late October, the system was under the influence of a weak La Niña — unusually cold ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific, which typically presages a colder-than-normal winter in the Northeast. But, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) winter forecast, when it comes to higher or lower temperatures and more or less snow, New England has “equal chances.”

“New England is a tough choice for the temperature and precipitation models,” says Michael Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. “I would compare it to a three-sided die. There’s no tilt above, near or below the averages. Historically, in a La Niña winter, we see less-than-average snowfall in the winters.”

In other words, if you don’t like the weather this winter, wait a minute.

That forecast may be no help to any Rhode Islander who prays for snow or cheek-tingling cold or those who wonder where global warming is when you really need it. But it’s all good for municipal and state departments of public works. Some of the biggest DPWs in the state were ready months ago. Starting in autumn, street sweeping makes sure the drains are clear of fallen leaves, the snow plows are prepped and the drivers are trained. Each Providence ward has its own snow inspector to ensure that the roads in his or her sector are cleared. In response to the winter of 2014–2015, Providence raised its budget for snow removal and road treatment by 10 percent to $1.598 million.

“I feel very comfortable with the budget we have,” says Colonel Michael Borg, the city’s director of public works. “It’s more than sufficient to handle all of the snow events in Providence. In the worst-case scenario, we’ll see up to 200 plows out working the roads. The only caveat: If we were to get a blizzard every third day, that would consume the budget.”

The state employs the latest snow-fighting technologies, such as snowplow sensors that control the application rate of salt and sand and road sensors that measure the air and road temperatures to assess the frictional resistance — how well tires can grip the road surface. The state uses a salt brine maker to lay down an anti-icing agent as a pretreatment that prevents the snow from bonding to the pavement. Since the traumas of 2015, the state implemented several other improvements, including new snowplow trucks and a department reorganization that added forty more state DOT maintenance workers. With an average budget of about $12 million, Bucci says, “We have to do what we have to do to keep the roads safe, with new technologies to be as cost efficient as possible.”

While road crews are devising new ways to remove snow, Tracy Hartman is all about making more. Hartman, general manager of Yawgoo Valley Ski Area and Water Park in Exeter, says that snow-making technology has come a long way since the 1980s, and “we can do 100 percent snow-making as long as we have the cold temperatures. Even with the winter we got last year, we were able to cover 100 percent of our trails.”

Nonetheless, she says, last winter “was a struggle.” The spring-like Christmas week weather delayed the opening of Yawgoo until January 2, and the entire season was just about ten weeks, instead of the usual fourteen or fifteen weeks.

 “That was the worst in forty years,” Hartman says. “We are hoping for a normal season this year.”

The warmest winter on record also made it tough to keep the Providence and Newport outdoor skating rinks viable, although the ice remained solid enough for long enough to see a combined 75,000 admissions. The Newport rink, and its “healthy, family festive vibe” shuts down the last day in February, says Michele Maker Palmieri, CEO of Waterfront Productions LLC.

But it is John Rotatori’s goal each winter to keep the Alex and Ani City Center ice rink in Providence open for as long as the skaters in Rockefeller Center are cutting three-turns around the 17,000-square-foot venue. The rink in the heart of Manhattan’s Midtown opened on October 11 with a ribbon-cutting by Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen and isn’t scheduled to close until April 11. Rockefeller Center can keep visitors gliding with the aid of an embedded refrigeration system under the concrete pad that sufficiently cools the mechanically generated ice.

Providence has a similar system, but last year, it gave general manager Rotatori some headaches. This winter the system has been reconditioned, with new equipment in the compressor room and a new chiller barrel that more efficiently cools the solution running through the pipes. He’s dreaming of a winter that keeps the ice until March 5.

“We had to close a week early last year. We had the perfect storm of warm temperatures, a few rainstorms and high winds. When it comes to outdoor ice, those are the three greatest nemeses; the water gets under ice and melts it from top and the bottom.”

As for those inhabitants who cannot create their own ideal conditions, “generally speaking our wildlife are adapted to our winter and survive without any trouble at all,” says Brian Tefft, principal wildlife biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Last winter, an ample mast crop — the acorns and seeds generated the previous summer — kept the herbivores, like deer, well fed. This summer, however, a persistent drought, along with the broad defoliation of the oak trees by the gypsy moth invasion, rendered the mast crop a failure.

“There’s not as much food around,” he says. “I predict that the deer will be on the move, there will be more nibbling of people’s gardens and there will be more auto strikes.”

Up in the state’s snowbelt, people are similarly adapted. Glocester Town Council’s Walter M.O. Steere III, a lifelong resident, ticks off the contents of his survival kit: “a four-wheel drive vehicle to get to the market early; a generator doesn’t hurt; two snow shovels — a primary and a back-up; and some board games.”

“We just live it and don’t think twice about it,” Steere says. “Just roll with the punches.”

In our hyperpolarized nation, weather remains one of the few socially acceptable topics of conversation. Whether the winter of 2017 will be hyperpolarized as well — that will be something to talk about in April.


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