El Niño worries state transportation departments

Dec. 21, 2015
El Niño worries state transportation departments

Here’s an interesting perspective on weather truckers should keep an eye upon. According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and what it calls a “first of its kind” survey about winter-weather preparations, some 70% of the 41 responding state departments of transportation (DOTs) to the group’s poll said their top “weather worry” this winter season is El Niño.

[As a result, that means extra attention should be paid to the condition of snow remove equipment, as this Iowa Department of Transportation (Iowa DOT) video explains.]

This unique ocean and atmospheric phenomenon refers to “large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate interaction” linked to a periodic warming in sea surface temperatures across the central and east-central Equatorial Pacific, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

This year’s El Niño is also predicted to be a “moderate-to-strong” event, which could generate the following scenarios this winter, according to Weather.com:

  • Wetter: Southern U.S. from California to the Carolinas then up parts of the East Coast
  • Drier: Parts of the Ohio Valley, Great Lakes, Northwest and Northern Rockies
  • Cooler: Desert Southwest, Southern Plains, northern Gulf Coast
  • Warmer: Northern tier of states from the Pacific Northwest to the Northern Plains, Great Lakes, and Northeast

The potential for greater snowfall is what’s worrying state DOTs the most, especially in southern states, noted Bud Wright, AASHTO’s executive director, in a statement.

“The primary goal of state DOTs is to maintain mobility throughout the year,” he said. “According to our survey even some of our southern most states are tracking El Niño and preparing accordingly.”  

“We know there’s going to be impacts due to El Nino this season,” added Rick Nelson, AASHTO snow and ice cooperative program manager. 

“There’s also a lot of uncertainty about when and how the roads in each state will be impacted,” he noted. “We’ve already seen flooding and mudslides in the Pacific Northwest and early snowfalls and warmer temperatures in other parts of the country.”

[Here’s a look at the unique home-grown “tow plow” used by the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) to clear its roads of ice and snow.]

AASHTO’s winter-preparatory survey also found that 40% of DOTs located in a patchwork of states across the country have increased salt supplies this year in anticipation of more snow and ice. 

A further 90% of survey respondents also said they using Road Weather Information System (RWIS) sensor technology in improve their response to weather situations.

Steve Lund, state maintenance engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MinnDOT), explained that sensors attached to maintenance vehicles, located on weather stations, or embedded in roadways and bridges, help collect and transmit data about atmospheric and road conditions. 

That data helps state DOT maintenance officials make better decisions about when and where to deploy equipment to plow roads or apply salt and other deicing chemicals, saving time and money.

[About four years ago, Garrett Dawe, North Region ITS coordinator/pavement management engineer, explained how Michigan’s RWIS works in the video below.]

“We’ve got 97 RWIS weather stations located across Minnesota,” Lund said. “These fixed high-tech stations also are equipped with cameras that have been linked to the state’s traveler information system. Now even motorists can see for themselves what driving conditions are like before they decide to get behind the wheel.”

Also where motorists are concerned, AASHTO found that 70% of the state DOTs it surveyed indicated that they are using social media to educate and prepare travelers about winter weather, with another 73% using a mobile app of some type to keep motorists informed about current road conditions.

“In Iowa our slogan is ‘know before you go,” explained Andrea Henry, Iowa DOT communications director for the Iowa DOT, in a statement.

“Our 511 traveler information system is accessible through our website, social media and an app for mobile devices,” she said. “During winter it’s especially helpful because drivers can get up to date information about road conditions, the locations of traffic incidents and closures and travel speeds on sections of roadway.”

Not bad advice for truckers, either, as winter may be preparing quite the roundhouse punch due to El Niño. We’ll wait and see if said punch gets delivered.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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