Thursday, January 23, 2014

Cut Back On The Salt...!

On the Roads:
Winter’s in the air and on the ground at University of Richmond, but snow isn’t the only white stuff coating campus these days. You could lick the sidewalks to find out, but I’ll save you the trouble.
That Southerners love salt is a fact known to most people, but you might not understand how MUCH we love it. Not only must we have our food sodium-rich to keep our blood pressures high, but we also need salt on our roads and sidewalks, rusting the bottoms of our cars and killing our plants.

Now you may be thinking: But Ben, doesn’t putting salt on the roads and sidewalks keep them from icing over? You’re right! Salt is a substance that not only makes food more flavorful, but also lowers the freezing point of water, thus melting ice and preventing more from forming. Starting in the 1930s, American cities and counties figured out that salting roads and sidewalks could prevent that invisible ice we all cherish.

Eighty years later, and the Mid-Atlantic States have taken the lead in seasoning their roads and highways: According to research from Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, one-third of road salt usage in the United States takes place here. This is despite the fact that, outside of the mountainous areas, we get fairly little snow and ice.

This would be a fairly minor issue if it just meant the rampant rusting of vehicle bottoms and occasionally slipping on salt that’s been half-assedly dumped in random piles (see photo). But when the snow and ice melts, that salt doesn’t conveniently disappear. Instead, it usually leaches into nearby patches of soil or runs off into bodies of water. Salt is a natural substance, but we dump unnatural amounts of it into the environment when we salt our roads and pavement. Virginia is both blessed and burdened by being in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed: We live in one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse areas in the United States, but we must be careful not to damage it...
The Bay is not the issue with salt; as a large body of brackish and salt water, even the massive doses of salt applied to our road ways are a drop in the bucket to that which comes from the ocean. However, salt does have the potential for a negative effect on some freshwater streams.  Spikes of sodium and chloride in freshwaters are easily seen after salt is applied to road ways.  It is harmful?  It's hard to know; organisms require salt, and freshwater organisms are adapted to seeing salt levels change with runoff.  But it certainly doesn't help.

I drove up north to Edgewater today, and many of the roads were so salt coated that they looked icy.

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