Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Travel: Seattle's Snowmageddon

A pile of snow rose in a parking lot near Bellevue Way and NE 8th Street in Bellevue, Washington on 23-December-2008--a common sight in New England or Canada, but not near Seattle

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - By leaving Toronto for the holidays, people in Ontario have been saying that I escaped "Snowmageddon," the nickname given to a series of three storms that struck Toronto starting last Wednesday with 8-20 cm of snow apiece. While that constitutes an unusual occurrence, Toronto can handle any given snowfall of 20 cm and by all accounts the city is as functional as would be expected in the winter now that "Snowmageddon" has passed.

I certainly did not escape. The word has not been used in the local media here, but the Pacific Northwest has been facing something that feels far closer to "Snowmageddon" than anything that Toronto has faced. Seattle, of course, can have winters without any snow at all, though it is not uncommon for a significant snowfall to occur. When that happens, however, the temperatures almost inevitably rise above freezing, rain follows, and the snow is off the ground within days. Thus, the Seattle tradition developed of not preparing for a serious snowstorm and simply shutting down the city until the snow is gone.

This December has been different. Instead of the temperatures rising, they have remained below freezing for multiple storm-fronts. By the time of my delayed arrived at Sea-Tac airport on Monday, the snow banks from two storms had grown to about 30 cm, and the forecast is for yet a third significant snowfall in the time before Christmas, when the normal pattern may finally return with rain to wash the snow away.

Seattle is not used to being a winter wonderland, and the winter weather pattern more like that found in Anchorage has strained many systems here. Alaska Airlines (yes, that's Alaska Airlines) shut down operations at Sea-Tac on Sunday night because it had run out of de-icing fluid; a line of their 737's still sat parked near the north end of the airport when I landed on Monday. Amtrak didn't fare much better. Because the northwest normally does not face constant cold temperatures, the BNSF Railway that hosts most Amtrak trains does not employ switch heaters and the tracks froze in place. Trains stopped for the day on Sunday in the Cascade corridor while switches were thawed with propane torches. Similarly, Greyhound stopped all service from Seattle for several days, sending stranded passengers to homeless shelters.

On the roads, the city of Seattle claims environmental reasoning--disputed by most scientists--for not using salt on its roadways, instead trying to create a layer of packed snow for all-wheel drive vehicles and front-wheel drive vehicles with chains. Predictably, this just leads to slippery conditions for everyone, and shoppers have been avoiding Seattle in droves, favoring suburbs that actually take the time to clear their roads and apply something other than sand. Scientists claim that sand, which causes unnatural silt build-up, is actually a larger environmental concern than salt, which is dissolved by the melting snow to concentrations close to that found in natural sea water. Furthermore, the city of Bellevue points out that the use of potassium chloride instead of sodium chloride causes a lower corrosive impact on vehicles. These are all old hat issues in Ontario, but not normally a significant matter in Washington and Oregon.

A woman walked a pair of malamutes down 108th Ave SE in Bellevue, Washington on 23-December-2008

A few have been enjoying the snow. While out walking today, my family encountered a pair of malamutes being walked down the street. For these Alaskan dogs in Washington state, this is the closest they will ever come to running the Iditarod.

No comments: