The big meltdown commences

A Road Commission grader and plow pushes back snowbanks along M-73 in early March, trying to make sure they eventually melt into the ditches, not onto the roadway.

By Peter Nocerini
IRON RIVER—After a ferocious February, Iron County is already halfway through a mixed-up March. Who can confidently predict what lies ahead during this year’s spring breakup?
    Time will tell, of course. Halfway through March, the average temperature was 10.4 degrees, which is 9.5 degrees colder than the normal 19.9 degrees.
    But the March snow total was 3.7 inches—we normally get 6.4 inches during the first half of March. While we got all the way up to 51 degrees on March 14, remember that we also had five mornings with lows in the minus 20s—as low as 31 below on March 3.
    Even after last week’s first round of serious melting, huge piles of snow still line rural roadways and city streets, constricting street widths like an urban version of arteriosclerosis.
    This week’s weather forecast predicts highs in the 40s, rising into the low 50s by the weekend. Lows are expected to stay in the 20s, and no rain or snow is expected.
    If road limits haven’t started already, they are imminent. Several counties in the Copper Country put them in effect late last week, while the state and many other counties started them this week. All through the weekend, big truckloads of logs passed along U.S. 2 on a regular basis, as haulers worked extra hours to make their deliveries before limits take effect.
    Road Commission Superintendent Doug Tomasoski said he hopes for temperatures above freezing during the day but dipping into the 10s or 20s at night. “That’s really what we want: a nice, slow melt.” The worst-case scenario is if heavy rain hits the area or if
 temperatures stay above freezing several nights.
    Still, the optimal kind of melt can create other problems for roads. The freeze/thaw cycle means melt/refreeze on the roads, which keeps sand trucks going out in the early morning to keep new ice in check. “It might be a daily basis thing.”
    That’s also ideal weather for creating potholes on streets and paved roads.
    When not plowing or sanding, Tomasoski said, Road Commission crews have been pushing back snowbanks as much as possible, “so when it does melt, it has a better chance of getting into the ditches and off the road surface.”
    In fact, the winter of 2018-19 had been fairly mild by Iron County standards. Both December and January saw below normal snow. Through Jan. 31, the weather station south of Caspian had recorded 27.5 inches of snow. Since the normal total through Jan. 31 is 40.5 inches, we were running 13 inches below normal. The most snow in any single day was 2.5 inches on Dec. 2.
    And then February arrived.
    The shortest month of 2019 will be remembered for a long time. After having no 3+-inch snow days before Jan. 31, we had five separate ones in February, including 8.0 inches on Feb. 13 and 7.5 inches on Feb. 24—part of a blizzard that blew through the Upper Midwest and brought life to a standstill. For good measure, we also had an ice storm early in the month.
    Along streets and roads, plow trucks piled up huge mountain ranges of snow, burying rural mailboxes and city sidewalks alike. After having little to do before February, area plowing services were suddenly stressed to the max, with both trucks and drivers working long, tiring hours, trying to clear away all the snow and then trying to figure where they can put it all.
    Snowbanks standing 6 and 7 feet tall at intersections created major hardships for drivers, who had no choice but to peek out timidly at intersections, inching ahead slowly until they could see if traffic was clear. Unplowed alleys and parking areas created their own chaos.
    When the 28 days of February ended, the monthly snow total was 39.8 inches, making it the second snowiest month in area history. (Behind only December 1996, which saw 44.6 inches. That was also the last time the Iron River area saw 30 or more inches in any month.)
    The old snowfall record for February of 35.2 inches (1962) was bested. And as long as we have the record book open, the record snowiest winter on record for this area is 1995-96, with 119.5 inches. Right now, our total stands at 71 inches.
    Snow depth this winter maxed out at 38 inches on Feb. 27. As this week starts, the snow depth was down to 15 inches. The big melt continues this week.