1948 Mayor to MIT: Use Flamethrowers to Melt Snow?

by Amy Marcott on February 2, 2011

in Campus Culture, Remember When...

Sixty three years ago Boston received so much snow that then Mayor James Curley took a look at it and began pleading with then MIT President Dr. Karl Compton for help. “I am very desirous that [MIT] have a competent group of engineers make an immediate study as to ways and means of removing the huge accumulation,” he wrote, “…be it by the use of flame throwers or chemicals or otherwise.” The mayor was desperate.

Sound familiar? Current Mayor Thomas Menino was quoted yesterday exclaiming, “This is relentless; it just doesn’t stop coming.” Indeed, Boston has already received more than 60 inches of snow this winter, some 20 more than the seasonal average, and more is on the way. Federal law prevents the city from dumping snow into the Charles River (too many contaminants), so the city is charged with finding ever more places to pile ever higher mountains of snow.

An article over the weekend in the New York Times pointed out that other cities, like Minneapolis, have dealt with this problem by investing in snow dragons, which are pricey machines capable of melting, filtering, and safely disposing of 30 tons of snow per hour. According to the Times piece, Boston has rebuffed the idea in the past but is reconsidering. Public Works Commissioner Joanne Massaro says that “any option is on the table.”

Any option, including reaching out to MIT?

“No,” says MIT Facilities Director John DiFava, “We haven’t heard from the Mayor’s office.” It’s probably for the best, since the crews are already busy. In the last few weeks, they have been working around the clock to deal with the record snow.

“At this point, it’s not necessarily the clearing it away, it’s the getting rid of it,” says DiFava. “When the snow first starts to come you plow it out of the way, but as it builds and doesn’t melt you start to lose space. It starts to fill in and the streets get smaller and the walkways get smaller, and then you’re faced with trucking it out.”

DiFava says MIT crews are piling snow in a campus recycling lot and several other lots in the northwest part of campus.

“We’re lucky to have property on campus where we can pile it,” he says, “but if this keeps up, they’ll close too. Then, I don’t know what.”

Time to dig out those flamethrowers?

Read Part II: 1948 MIT President to Mayor: Try Salt

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Violeta Ivanova February 2, 2011 at 9:57 am

Give it to politicians to tell engineers what to do … :-)

This may be a silly question, but can’t they dump the snow in the ocean?

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Chris Donaher February 2, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Violeta, Sen. Jack Hart (MA) just proposed dumping the snow into the Boston Harbor yesterday. The reason they don’t is because they haven’t been forced to before. They have what they call “snow farms” outside of Boston where they usually bring the snow. Now that those are filling up, many people are calling for the snow to go into the ocean. The reason they don’t currently dump in the ocean is over concerns of pollution from the salt and deicer dropped on the streets.

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Cris February 3, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Yeah…wouldn’t want to put too much salt in the ocean.

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the curmudgeon February 3, 2011 at 2:57 pm

The problem is what sort of salt is going onto the snow and how far would dumping tons of snow into the harbour push the harbour away from it’s normal salinity. No, you’re not allowed to do what might be the simple thing anymore, no matter how simple and how little effect it might have. Someone will find a dead mussel hanging on a pier and declare an ecological disaster.

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Sean Peters February 3, 2011 at 4:48 pm

There’s salt and then there’s “salt”. A lot of the stuff they use to melt ice with isn’t sodium chloride – it’s one of any number of different compounds. And I’m guessing that the real issue isn’t any of that, but instead oil residue, soot, and all the rest of the black crap you see that forms the crappy looking boulders that appear in your wheel-wells. You might think that all that stuff ends up in the ocean anyway when the snow melts… but in reality, when snow melts on land a lot of the contaminants are filtered out by the ground, plants, etc. When you dump it straight in the water, none of that happens.

This is more than just mindless bureaucracy at work here – there are legitimate reasons not to dump this stuff straight in the ocean.

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DonLivingston February 3, 2011 at 3:17 pm

The trouble with that argument is that all the salt, deicers, and other crap that is dropped on the streets eventually reaches the oceans anyway during the spring runoff.

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jorgekafkazar February 3, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Don, you’re trying to be logical. That is SO pre-postmodern!

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Sean Peters February 3, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Yes… after it gets filtered through the ground (which removes much of this). None of that filtering happens when you dump it straight into the harbor.

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Catty Nebulart February 3, 2011 at 5:32 pm

This is a question of concentration as much as anything else, if I ram a tablespoon of salt down your throat you’ll be fine, if I instead feed you a pound of salt you’ll keel over dead.

When it washes into the ocean it tends to do so over a period of time and some will settle into the ground instead, etc.

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Christine February 2, 2011 at 5:22 pm

For more on the snow in the ocean debate, read Paul Levy’s blog http://runningahospital.blogspot.com/2011/01/throw-snow-in-harbor.html

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I admit I am an employee of the designer... February 2, 2011 at 12:42 pm

if you agree that a turbo reactor is similar to a flame thrower…

http://www.bertin.fr/en/thermal-snowbuster.aspx

such solution exists ! (c;

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Glen Speckert February 2, 2011 at 2:24 pm

And what was Dr. Compton’s response?

What did the Institute suggest?

What ideas were proposed at the time?

Please publish the rest of the story…

– Glen

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Someone February 3, 2011 at 12:07 pm
Paul Levy February 3, 2011 at 9:42 am
Not Serious February 3, 2011 at 11:56 am

Please cut the snow into blocks and use them to build a giant igloo over the entire Boston metropolitan area. This will lower heating costs within the igloo and prevent more snow from accumulating on the streets.

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Captain Obvious February 3, 2011 at 12:25 pm

That won’t work.

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HaHa February 3, 2011 at 12:45 pm

I like your idea, but you forgot to mention one more benefit…it would contain the people and save the rest of the country from having to deal with people from Boston!

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anon February 3, 2011 at 9:21 pm

http://www.flickr.com/photos/sushiesque/5393563561/

[Editor’s Note: this is a snow decahedron photographed in Porter Square (Cambridge) Jan. 27, 2011.

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Joke February 3, 2011 at 12:50 pm

Call in mister minecraft, have him stack all the snow into blocks and create shelters for the homeless out of them.

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Mike February 3, 2011 at 1:16 pm

So what happens to the pile of snow in the summer? I certainly hope it does not find its way to the ocean?

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Udo February 3, 2011 at 1:33 pm

While some of the melt will probably run into rivers and into the ocean, much of it should be filtered through the ground, where the contaminants would have a chance to decay.

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Kevin February 3, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Don’t worry about the ocean, all the pollutants go right into the ground!

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Paul Reinheimer February 3, 2011 at 1:26 pm

I live in Montréal, a city that receives its fair share of snow. I suggested melting it in various locations to a friend a few years ago, he shot me down. At first out of hand, then with the aid of math and wolframalpha. Look up how much energy you get burning a gallon of your favourite fuel, then how much energy you’ll need to warm snow (essentially water) up enough degrees to melt.

We didn’t even account for the phase change, and it was still way more expensive than trucking it a long ways.

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evaporated brains February 3, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Snow dragons only create another problem of liquid water which can freeze and clog ground water drains by overwhelming the ground pipes.

The best place for the snow is to put it back in the air.

A solution would be to super cool the snow with nitrogen to induce sublimation. Such a process could take advantage of cold winter climates to reduce enthalpy of vaporization.

Sounds mad scientist? Maybe not. we’re already doing it. Equipment already exists where tires are recycled into chips in productive quantities using low loss, liquid nitrogen cooled processes. Feed it snow.

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RK Davies February 3, 2011 at 1:47 pm

This may be a silly question here, but if the snow melts on the city streets, all of that contamination they fear is going to wash down the valleys and into the rivers and oceans anyway…

Not only that, but what about all the snow that has fallen into the river naturally?

Is it really that much of a concern?

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evaporated brains February 3, 2011 at 2:06 pm

By the time it flows into the ocean from ground run-off over the spring time, the density is usually within acceptable levels due to the slow introduction of pollutants over time into the ocean, giving the ocean time to naturally filter it (this isn’t good either, but at least the animals continue to live). A single snow dumping event over a few days could rapidly overwhelm an ecosystem’s ability to process contaminants and kill off large numbers of any given set of species very quickly.

It’s like bleach shocking a swimming pool once and not allowing anyone in it for a couple weeks as opposed to slowly introducing swim safe chemicals over time.

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Matt B February 3, 2011 at 1:52 pm

How about an under ground conveyor belt to a local dump (and hopefully recycling plants)? It could also be used for moving trash in the non winter months. It would still need to be trucked to locations along the belt way. It would double as a simple way for trash to be removed and redirected as well. If carts were deployed they could also be used for transportation of parcels and aid in emergencies. It would be a second network alongside (actually underneath) the road network that could run 24/7 even in bad weather. It would obviously need flood defences of some type.

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Zeke February 3, 2011 at 9:05 pm

Why not just move Boston to Florida?

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Darren R. Starr February 4, 2011 at 3:25 am

Complex solutions to a relatively easy problem.

The problem in short is to keep a large amount of snow and ice when melting from causing a disorganized flooding scenario. So, we’re suggesting the optimal solution would be to provide a means of order to this chaos.

Assumption 1: there are human resources available to assist in the correction of the problem.

Assumption 2: the snow and ice will turn to water at some point, the rate and the result are what defines the problem.

By making use of small bulldozers (the kind used for small jobs like sidewalks), with the heat turned off, the snow can be compressed while it is still cold outside. By compressing the snow, ice will be formed which will melt at a much slower rate than the snow did.

By doing this, you can for the most part direct the snow either directly to sewers, water basins, the ocean, ad-hoc pipes (such as the nylon conduits used for underground cabling) and the path of the water can be adjusted to route it more efficiently than it would on its own.

For a really nerdy bonus, in a storm basin, lining one side of the basin with a rolled out, insulated nichrome based “blanket” to create a tremendous, high temperature heated surface on a slope makes an ideal place to poor water over. So long as the water is traveling across the blanket, it will be in the form of relatively thin sheets and due to the heat will evaporate at a much higher than natural rate. Therefore the capacity of the basin won’t be exceeded too soon. Of course, powering this will cost millions

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Colin Principe February 10, 2011 at 1:14 pm

Thanks Darren for pointing out that Mayor Curley wasn’t worried about where to put the snow during winter, but rather how to prevent catastrophic flooding in spring.

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Tony February 7, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Perhaps they should send all the politicians outside to talk about it. The amount of hot air thus generated should cure the problem.

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Matt Hickford February 8, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Haha! There’s a similar story in Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman

One guy in a uniform came to me and told me that the army was glad that  physicists were advising the military because it had a lot of problems. One of the  problems was that tanks use up their fuel very quickly and thus can’t go very far. So the  question was how to refuel them as they’re going along. Now this guy had the idea that, since the physicists can get energy out of uranium, could I work out a way in which we  could use silicon dioxide ­­ sand, dirt ­­ as a fuel? If that were possible, then all this tank  would have to do would be to have a little scoop underneath, and as it goes along, it  would pick up the dirt and use it for fuel! He thought that was a great idea, and that all I had to do was to work out the details. That was the kind of problem I thought we would  be talking about in the meeting the next day.

And a satire in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle

The Marines, after almost two-hundred years of wallowing in mud, were sick of it,” said Dr. Breed. “The general, as their spokesman, felt that one of the aspects of progress should be that
Marines no longer had to fight in mud.”
“What did the general have in mind?”
“The absence of mud. No more mud.”
“I suppose,” I theorized, “it might be possible with mountains of some sort of chemical, or tons of some sort of machinery…”
“What the general had in mind was a little pill or a little machine. Not only were the Marines sick of mud, they were sick of carrying cumbersome objects. They wanted something *little* to
carry for a change.”

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Lawrence J. Krakauer February 14, 2013 at 4:34 pm

MIT did use snow melters, sometime in the late sixties or early seventies. I saw them myself. These were steel funnels shaped like inverted pyramids, with massive propane-fed flames blowing into a chamber at the bottom. They were positioned over storm drains, and front-loaders were used to dump snow into them. Then the oil crisis of 1973 arrived, the price of propane shot up, and they were never seen again.

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