Salt: A fresh look at a familiar winter ingredient - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Salt: A fresh look at a familiar winter ingredient

Flickr user Steven Vance (CC)

Let's look differently at road salt and the many ways it impacts our region.

Brave souls enduring Midwestern winters are no strangers to road salt. We walk confidently atop slushy sidewalks crunching the salt underfoot. We showcase the white-washed salt lines on our boots as proof. We safely hit the streets once the plows have paved the way, sprinkling a trail of salt behind. We witness the trail of damage to our cars as the salt eats away paint and makes room for rust.

I’d say we all have a perpetual love/hate relationship with salt!

But let’s take a closer look. How much do you really know about these little crystals? Salt actually touches a few different aspects of our daily lives that are worth exploring.

The charge of this blog post series will be to shake up our understanding of salt and reveal its relationships to our government, water and climate resiliency here in the greater Chicago region. 

To start, when we talk road salt we are really talking about a thing called sodium chloride.

Sodium chloride is a special ingredient in combatting January weather because when in contact with snow and ice, the sodium and chloride atoms begin to dissolve. In the process, they push apart the water molecules, essentially melting the wintry conditions back into a liquid.

As many of us may remember from our high school chemistry classes, this chemical phenomenon buys us a few degrees before the onset of ice because salty water freezes at a much lower temperature than pure water. I think we can all appreciate why local governments plan ahead placing road salt orders each year as a public safety measure.

Unfortunately, communities are depleting their salt in storage and lack the funds to replenish it, given a state budget crisis even more blistering than the recent wind chill. It also turns out that chloride is a harmful pollutant to our water, so much so that there is a new water quality standard in Illinois to address the overabundance of chloride. Seems there is a lot about salt to explore further.

In an effort to better educate myself and others about how salt is a parable for many issues our region (and others) faces, here are the topics this series will cover:

  • Government efficiency: How could improvements in road salt management open the door to better government operation?
  • Water resources: What are the range of impacts that road salt has on our drinking water supply and the natural areas in our watersheds?
  • Climate resiliency: Does salting in winter prevent us from managing the negative impacts of heavy rains in spring?

While some bright minds are potentially concocting futuristic roads that can de-ice themselves, it’s the middle of winter in the Midwest, where the ice-breaking commodity abounds. So, let’s start by shaking up our understanding of salt!


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