Marquette County snow plows dig in for harsh winter

Snow is no stranger to the U.P. or Marquette County, which sees more than 200 inches every winter. But, sometimes keeping the roads free and clear in the most populated county in the region can be a daunting task.

This year’s plowing season started a bit earlier than usual as snow totals eclipsed the 2012 tallies by close to 50 percent at 74.5 inches.

Normally those numbers wouldn’t be much of a problem, but when the snow pack froze over during December’s arctic blast, it created a layer of ice that won’t seem to budge.

“Couple of the foreman are complaining they’re getting gray fast trying to figure out what to do with them [roads] because there isn’t a whole lot we can do,” noted Marquette County Road Commission Director of Operations and Maintenance Mike Harrington. “We put the graters on them and the trucks on them. We’ve tried scraping it off. We’ve thrown thousands of yards of sand-salt mix on them. We’ve actually tried salting them. Generally, salt goes straight through it, creates a brine on the bottom, and lifts it. But, what we were getting was more of Zamboni look. It was turning the top to a liquid and refreezing. It’s been frustrating trying to get them back to a bare pavement.”

Conventional wisdom would have you believe that throwing salt at the problem is a simple solution. But, even though it might lower the freezing point, the salt still needs help from Mother Nature to make its effect hold true.

“If it doesn’t have time to dry out, later on in the day you’re back into black ice,” remarked Harrington. “Ideally, you want to put the salt on the road, have it turn to a liquid, and then dry. If you can get it to be dry, then when you get a little bit of snow it will blow off. If you have a wet road surface and you have blowing snow, it wants to stick and make slush which is dangerous also.”

The Road Commission’s threshold for whether or not to use ice is about 15 degrees, but even then there a number of other factors that come into play.

Every one of the 30 plus winter employees is equipped with a handheld device which updates them on current road temperatures, conditions, and even the amount of salt already on the road thanks to forecasting technology and cameras embedded in four towers spread out across the region.