'Black Sand' helps Mother Nature melt snow a little quicker on mountain passes

Published: Tuesday, May 14 2013 5:55 p.m. MDT

UDOT crews work to remove snow along state Route 39 with the help of new Black Sand near Monte Cristo Summit in Weber County a Monday, May 13, 2013.

James Young, Deseret News

MONTE CRISTO, Weber County — The Utah Department of Transportation recently tested a new way to clear snow from high mountain passes. Transportation officials say the results were impressive and will save taxpayers time and money.

"I don't think we expected it to work quite as well as it has," UDOT spokesman Vic Saunders said, referring to the new "black sand" treatment the agency is testing out.

Monday afternoon, plow crews were able to break through the remaining 4-foot snow drifts on state Route 39, not far from Monte Cristo Summit in Weber County. Crews broke through the drifts with a little help from the very fine sand.

Kelly Andrew, the crew supervisor in charge of the plows, has a farming background. He said he's watched farmers use a similar technique to clear snow from fields.

"I've seem it work for them," Andrew said. "If it worked for them, why not for UDOT?"

Three weeks ago, his crew used a farm fertilizer spreader on the back of a snow cat to spread a thin layer of the black sand over the snowy road.

"We applied it for a mile, then stopped for a mile, then started again, so we would have some good test sections," Andrew said.

Crews checked the test sections each day for the first week and weekly after that. They collected a lot of data for a report, but their preliminary results and photographs clearly show the snow covered by the sand melted away much more quickly.

"It looked like it melted about twice as fast as the snow without the material on it," Andrew said.

"It collects that solar heat, and Mother Nature does her thing with that black surface," Saunders said.

In an average year, Saunders said it takes about a week and a half to clear the road over the Monte Cristo pass. Two years ago, with record snowfall in northern Utah, it took three weeks.

This year, after the black sand had been on the snow for about three weeks, it only took one day to punch through the final drifts.

"If we can do that and cut down on the time it takes to open the road and not have all of the equipment tied up, that's a cost-savings benefit," Andrew said.

In turn, that will save taxpayer dollars, he said. The experiment cost $10,000, but with the man-hours saved, reduced wear and tear on the equipment, and the fuel costs of running the machines, UDOT should see a reduction in costs in the future.

"It will give us that jump-start that we need so that we can come in here with our equipment and be more efficient in the removal of that snow," Saunders said.

The black sand also is fine for the environment, UDOT officials said. It's made up of 95 percent sand and 5 percent inert material. The agency expects to use it in the future in years when the snow is especially deep.

Hot temperatures are melting a lot of snow now, but several mountain passes will remain blocked for a couple more weeks. Even though state Route 39 is nearly clear, it won't open until 6 a.m. May 24.

Email: jboal@deseretnews.com

Twitter: jedboal

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