Snow/ice clearing in the northern US vs. southern US

At what time of the year does a city accustomed to heavy/snow ice lot of winter weather put their snow/ice removal crews at 100% alert? I’m wondering that if, say, Chicago had 2-3 inches of hard ice dropped on it by surprise during rush hour in late September, would they be as screwed as Atlanta has been these past 24 hours or so? (assume that I’m already intimately familiar with the dysfunctional and incompetent civic institutions in Atlanta; I’m wondering if a more experienced city could get surprised by such an improbable event).

Seems to me the important difference is that no one in Georgia/ Alabama has winter tyres… They thought they’d copy the northern folk and head on home, just drive through the snow…

Quotes from
But, after sitting in his car for 20 minutes without getting anywhere, he went back to his office. “I couldn’t understand why nobody was moving; the streets weren’t icy yet,” he said.

“The weather was a great equalizer,” he said after sitting in traffic for nine hours. “(It) didn’t matter if you had a late model Mustang or a beater van or a Brink’s armored car, your wheels were spinning fruitlessly on the ice.”

From what I hear of the news reports Atlanta has very little snow equipment compared to Chicago (And why shouldn’t they? Atlanta hardly ever gets this kind of weather.)

The other difference is, in a city like Chicago, traffic planners would look at the forecast and their own track record, and probably make a decision to pre-treat the streets the night or morning before the expected storm.

However, it doesn’t take a lot to make the planners look like idiots. In St. Louis in 2012, the crews were ready for snow, but not for the wet snow that melted and immediately refroze into black icewhen the temperatures dropped.

The area forcast wasn’t that dire up until the event. Ice changes everything - you don’t move. Mayors let out everything - govt., school, businesses - at the same time. As mentioned, northern cites will pre-treat. No where enough equipment/materials/personnel. Drivers unaccustomed to driving in snow. Witness the Super Bowl in Dallas and its ice storm fallout. Did I mention ice?

In a city like Chicago, would they have resources on hand as early as late September ready to pre-treat in the event of a freak storm?

What I’m getting at I’m thinking that even in a snow-ready city, there’s a certain threshold where they say the probability of an ice event is so low that they’re willing to just accept the risk rather than assume the cost of staffing up for a freak event that may only happen once every several years.

You can tell I’m obviously leaning in that direction, but I’m mining for any insights. I did live briefly in northern Japan where 2 feet of snow was normal, but I never once feared I’d be stuck anywhere. It must be enormously expensive to maintain such a vigorous response months before it might actually be needed.

It’s a good question. The plows / salt spreaders would likely be available (or could be made ready fairly rapidly), but it’s the salt itself that would be a question. I don’t know when, during the summer / fall, Chicago gets its shipments of salt…but, they go through so much during a typical winter that it would not surprise me to learn that they get shipments throughout the non-winter season (or, at least, starting in late summer).

It would also depend on the extent to which the city had depleted its salt reserve from the prior winter. There have been some years recently in which Chicago did not get much in the way of snow or ice, and there was undoubtedly leftover salt (which would normally be used during the following winter).

The problem with Atlanta is that officials didn’t heed the warnings. The National Weather Service had been briefing officials since Sunday that Atlanta area would face problems and put them under a winter storm watch but they did nothing. By Tuesday morning the NWS was telling them “seriously, it’s gonna be bad” but it was too late.

I would think that a place like Chicago would be more prepared to listen to the advice, but that kind of thing can happen to any city. You see it happen with tornadoes and other events as well and there’s a lot of debate with meteorologists about how to best warn people. But in the end, meteorologists aren’t in charge of anything and can only offer predictions whether officials listen to them or not.

Quite likely.

For one thing, and surplus supplies from a mild winter would be carried over the summer. For another, you don’t want to wait for the last minute delivery, municipalities take deliveries of road salt during the summer. Maintenance on winter equipment would also be scheduled well in advance of anticipated weather.

According to Tom Skilling (local well-respected meterologist in Chicago) the only months Chicago has never had a recorded snowfall are July and August. So snow is a possibility September through June, although snowfalls in September and June have always been minimal events (so far).

Do that many people in traditional snow states have them? I live in one and have never had them–I always use all-season tires.

Not only it is possible that a northern city would be paralyzed by a freak early winter storm, it’s happened frequently.

The winter plowing fleet is normally not a completely separate group placed in storage for the summer. Plows will be stored separately and attached to vehicles normally in use, like dump trucks or even garbage trucks. It takes time to attach hundreds of plows to vehicles. Salt and other melters may have year-round storage but normally get drawn down over the winter and built up again over the summer into the fall. Drivers are drawn from other departments and the needed scheduling might not be in place. It’s a major convertion to go into winter mode.

Ice is a whole other story. You can’t plow ice. Depending on temperature you may not be able to melt ice with salt. Ice is heavy and deadly. A half-inch of ice will take down trees and power lines. One inch is a disaster and will close a city for up to a week. I’ve never heard of 2-3 inches of hard ice. That’s a Katrina-level event. No city in America could handle that any time of year.

Something similar to this happened to DC in 2011. The government closed at 4 pm and dumped everyone on the roads at the same time that started snowing. Chaos ensued and thousands spent the night in their cars.

Even with a decent number of snow plows/equipment, you can get into a vicious cycle with bad enough traffic and falling snow:
1.If the snow plow is stuck in traffic, then it can’t plow much snow or dump salt.
2. If they can’t plow much snow and dump salt, then there roads get snow/icy.
3. The more the roads get snow/icy the more wrecks you get.
4. The more wrecks there are, the the more traffic stops.
5. Repeat step 1.

This cycle didn’t even mention the number of people that run out of gas after idling for 4-5 hours and then have to abandon their cars, which just clog it up more.

Once you get into this cycle, it is hard to get out.

There is no chance a city like Chicago would be as paralyzed as Atlanta has been even if it snowed in the middle of July.

During the off season a percentage of the snow fleet is pretty much just sitting. Per person I’d be willing to bet Chicago has more equipped snow vehicles in July than Atlanta has in December. Granted most the snow equipment is repurposed for summer construction so they wouldn’t be up to full winter capacity instantly but they’d be better off than Atlanta.
It tends to be the vehicles nearing the end of there life that aren’t repurposed because driving vehicles into the ground plowing is the norm. To be at full capacity with the other equipment it isn’t that hard to mount the plows and sanders. With a few days notice it can be done. It’s more a question of how much a city is willing to budget on overtime labor.
Also add in northern drivers typically have more experience driving in snow and ice so that alone would leave Chicago in a much better situation.

Many do, but they wouldn’t have the tires on the cars in September. But in the snow zone people don’t have really crappy tires on the cars in winter; they just wouldn’t be able to function. And for the most part they know how to drive in snow.

The big thing up north is that they can pre-treat the roads to help prevent ice build up. And get the plows out on time, etc. The snow plows are multi-use vehicles, dump trucks that they put plows and sanders on for the winter. It takes time and planning to get them setup so a sudden freak storm in September would catch them without the necessary gear. We’ve had significant storms in October and the response isn’t the same as one in mid-winter.

Oh, you’re one of those people…

I live in upstate NY. I haven’t used snow tires in years, ever since the year in the 70s when I scheduled an appointment to have mine put on – and there was a freak snowstorm the day before so the tire place was swamped. But I’ve found all purpose are just fine, and I’ve never had a problem getting stuck or skidding.

The salting and sanding and plowing is started as soon as flakes start to fall. In addition, drivers have practice driving in snow (though for the first snowstorm, they have to relearn it) and know what to do. Videos of cars going out of control these past couple of days show things that you usually don’t see around here – cars traveling too fast for the conditions, not knowing what to do when they go into a skid, and using their brakes to stop when something goes wrong (Instead, you look far ahead of you and take your foot off the gas at any sign of a slowdown. ABS helps, but engine braking is much better.) I also stay off the highways as much as I can: one accident on a limited access highway can leave you trapped for hours.

Northerners are more likely to carry sand or a folding shovel in case they go get stuck.

I live in Chicago, and, off-hand, I can’t think of anyone who switches tires for the winter. I’m sure some people do, but I’d be surprised if it’s the usual thing to do (especially given how expensive tires are.)

My father’s boss once announced he wouldn’t pay for a tow truck unless the employee had already tried to dig their car out on their own. He looked at my father and demanded “are you carrying the snow shovel you were given?”

“Yes sir,” my father replied, “Except in August when I figure I’ll chance it.”

Yeah, but that was the culmination of about 4 days of sub-freezing temperatures where we got an ice storm, THEN about 2-3 inches of snow on top of all the ice.

A couple of inches of snow isn’t anything special; we had 9 inches here in Dallas the year before that, and nobody had to sleep in their schools or cars or anything ridiculous like that. Hell, we got half an inch of ice in December, and with the exception of widespread power outages (200,000+ people at one point), it wasn’t so crippling as this business in Alabama and Georgia.

Then again, Dallas gets ice or snow at least once a year, if not twice, so we’re somewhat accustomed to it, while I’m not sure Atlanta gets it that often. I think the powers-that-be there didn’t pay as much attention to the weather forecasters as they should have (based on watching Al Roker’s chronology of the NWS alerts in Atlanta as shown on NBC Nightly News this evening)

AWD or front wheel drive cars do much better in snow than rear wheel drive vehicles.

I now have a rear wheel drive car and after several winters I decided to switch to snow tires. The improvement in traction on snowy streets is obvious. I live on a side street that doesn’t get plowed as often as a main road, so that’s an issue much of the winter.

You can get away without snow tires. I did, although I got seriously stuck a couple of times in deep ruts in unplowed areas. If you can afford them, they’re a luxury that’s worth the price.

Map of accumulations during the ice storm of 1998. It didn’t hit any major American cities, but Montreal got over 2 inches of ice, and some regions of upstate New York and southern Quebec got almost 4 inches. Montreal didn’t fare too well in the event; power outages went on for most of a week, and part of the city was without water for a while due to lack of power to some pumping stations.