If you happen to rely on a groundhog for your forecast, you may have been dismayed to hear Punxsutawney Phil’s assertion on Groundhog Day that we had six more weeks of winter ahead. Regardless of how much credence you place in a groundhog’s predictions (I personally trust him for all my news), February definitely proved we were not yet out of the notoriously brutal Boston winter, and the threat of snowfall in March is still very real.
In snowy conditions, we prioritize keeping warm when outside and staying safe on the roads, but we have to be conscious of how we accomplish these goals. Collectively as humans, we tend to manipulate our natural environment to make it more convenient and efficient for ourselves. During winter, salting roads in anticipation of wintry storms can have unintended consequences. Road salt might seem innocuous considering some of the solutions are made of table salt and other mixtures consist of magnesium chloride or calcium chloride, which are similar in structure and function. Road salt is highly practical for safe driving as it prevents ice from forming and snow from sticking. There are environmental consequences of using de-icing salt, however, and given that Boston College spreads this salt before a storm, we should be aware of its ramifications and perhaps look to incorporate alternatives into our pre-storm repertoire, including using different types of plows or even just less salt.
Roadside soil and vegetation are usually first to come into contact with the salt, simply because of their proximity to the road itself. The salt degrades soil and causes disruptions in delicate nutrient balances that are essential for plant growth. There is also a plethora of microorganisms residing in the soil that are indispensable in the food chain, and any disruptions in salinity come at a detriment to those communities.
Even though BC’s campus is developed and far from a flourishing woodland, there is still reason to be concerned about the health of our vegetation, soil, and microorganisms. A campus desolate of any sort of shrubbery or grass would negate sustainability efforts on campus—like the F.R.E.S.H. initiative in the dining halls—not to mention that a barren campus is not aesthetically pleasing.
Even more concerning to the student body should be the possible effects of road salt on BC’s beloved Chestnut Hill Reservoir. Students refer to it as “the Res” and enjoy walking and running its perimeter while appreciating the overall beauty of the space. The utility of the Res has become especially relevant in the age of COVID-19 as it provides students with a safe outdoor area to connect with friends. De-icing road salt, however, has the potential to impair the health of the Res as well as the organisms that rely on it for their habitat and drinking water.
Lakes in the Adirondack Park in New York provide an apt comparison to the Reservoir, as both experience harsh winters and are subjected to large amounts of road salt. Lake George specifically measured a 3.4% increase in salt concentrations over the past 30 years. Residents of Lake Placid have already called their local government to action with a petition clamoring for “immediate action” in decreasing road salt concentrations or looking for alternative de-icing methods. Other Adirondack freshwater streams reported salinity concentrations proportionate to saltwater concentrations.
One threat an increased salt concentration poses in the Reservoir that has been observed in the Adirondack lakes is harm to the aquatic organisms residing there. Colonies of cyanobacteria and phytoplankton cannot tolerate changes in salinity, and larger organisms like fish experience decreased mass and problems with breeding due to increased salt levels. These species are essential in preserving the Reservoir’s natural ecosystem, not to mention maintaining the Commonwealth’s label of the Chestnut Hill Reservoir as a spot for “fishing.”There is no reason to be hyper-concerned about the Reservoir or vegetation on campus right now, as there are no tests proving that there are currently issues with their salinity, but the possible environmental issues that come with de-icing road salt is something to be preemptively aware of. There are hopes for alternatives—plows with a different type of scraper and just applying less salt have proved effective for clearing roads in upstate New York while being more environmentally friendly. So, for now, persevere through the winter, stay warm, and maybe tell people about how much you now know about road salt.
Featured Graphic by Meegan Minahan / Heights Editor