The Salt Used on Icy Roads Causes Serious Environmental Consequences

Ellie Retzlaff, Staff Writer

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The approaching spring equinox, Tuesday, March 20, marks the official end to winter. But in spite of that, the weather doesn’t seem to be complying with the designated calendar seasons. When you think of spring, you probably don’t imagine piles of snow and winter coats still hanging on people’s shoulders. Yet, here in Minnesota, we are still getting strange weather patterns that inevitably bring snow, ice, and freezing weather. While this brings in questions of climate change and the lasting effects that it may have on our environment, it also has a more subtle environmental impact: the salting of roads.
Ice and snow can wreak havoc on intersections and roads, causing uncountable car accidents. Even for the most cautious driver, ice can be a very big hazard. This is why salt has become important for maintaining safety for drivers and passengers alike. In the recent years especially, salt has become a vital tool. With the shifting weather patterns of this year and years before, as well as the melting and freezing of snow, ice has become a more relevant issue. Also, with this year in particular and the stretch of the winter season, salt is being used more frequently.
But what does salt actually do? According to Scientific American, “[Salt], when added to ice, first dissolves in the film of liquid water present on the surface [of ice], thereby lowering its freezing point below the ice’s temperature. Ice, in contact with salty water, melts, creating more liquid water, which dissolves more salt, thereby causing more ice to melt, and so on.”
The seeming effectiveness of salt is most likely what has stopped people from thinking about what kind of effect it may have on the environment. This calls into question the main purpose of this article: what are the environmental effects of salt?
Studies done recently may show that salt negatively impacts plants, wildlife, and water quality. When the salt dissolves into the ice, it doesn’t just go away. Instead, it travels into lakes and streams and becomes a part of the water cycle.
The salt used on roads is made of plenty of chemicals and even dyes, which a U.S. Geological survey researcher stated is “nasty stuff, which nobody pays much attention to.”
These harmful substances then travel to the ocean and our own water supply. Evidently 70% of salt applied to roads stays within the region’s watershed and becomes difficult and expensive to remove, according to researchers in Minnesota. By traveling in streams and lakes, it can even affect water wells, causing a change in the water’s taste and negatively impacting anyone on a low-sodium diet.
Wildlife living in ecosystems with contaminated water or near salted roads may also feel the effects. Freshwater aquatic animals living in salted water are not able to regulate the amount of salt they take in and therefore have lower survival rates. Additionally, deer, moose, and sometimes birds living by roads with salt are attracted to the dried salt crystals on the road and are more likely to run into roads and get hit.
Along with wildlife, trees and plants near salted roads may be at risk for dehydrating because of the chemicals salt contains and their effect on a tree or plants ability to sustain water. Finally, water with a high enough salt concentration can quickly turn into acid rain, which can cause erosion and other forms of pollution. These are just some of the many ways that salt adversely affects the environment.
So what exactly are we to do? The long standing tradition of using salt for our safety is not just going to stop. Alternatives to salt are few and usually expensive. Part of the reason salt is so popular is because it is very cheap. While changing the entire system is unlikely to happen, there are ways that we can stay environmentally conscious, such as pre-wetting salt (more controlled and more likely to stick), applying salt at the right time, and simply cutting down on usage.
While it is unlikely that winter will end by March 20, the season is still winding down. And though this means the process of salting roads may also be winding down, it is still important to raise awareness. Even the smaller changes, like getting rid of salt usage on roads, may ultimately help our planet to be more eco-friendly, a goal that we should always strive to achieve.

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