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Boston's snow piles — 'A science experiment waiting to happen'

By Karen Graham     May 29, 2015 in Science
Boston - They are not pretty to look at, and as the temperatures continue to climb, they won't smell too good, either. We're talking about Boston's leftover snow piles, some of them as tall as a three-story building.
The city's record-setting winter snowfall has left Boston with a disgusting reminder of what extreme weather can do. The city had been worried about the snow melting and causing flooding, so the massive piles of snow were removed from the streets and put into tightly-packed, but humongous piles.
The Weather Channel says that on March 15, not only did Boston's 110.3 inches of snow break its previous snowfall record of 107.6 inches, set in 1995-1996, the city also failed to reach 40 degrees F from January 20 through March 3, a record streak of 43 days in a row, and a good fact to know if you are a trivia nut like some of us.
Boston set a new record this past winter for snow fall totals.
Boston set a new record this past winter for snow fall totals.
Wochit News
A public works official, Daniel Nee explained that one pile contains an estimated 86 tons of debris, most of it garbage. This is because the city was struck by two snowstorms after Bostonians had put out their garbage. It all got picked up by the passing snow plows.
Nee said on Friday that as the pile has melted, workers have found bicycles, fire hydrants, parking meters, and a bunch of other items. Oh, and there is plenty of rotting household garbage, too. Those piles of dirty, disgusting snow and debris are still around, even though it has warmed up. You would think that some sunshine and warm days would do the trick, but there really is a science behind the melting of snow, whether it is a snowman or a snow-filled pile of garbage.
“The fact that it’s still there is a science experiment waiting to happen,” Michael Dennehy, commissioner of the city’s Department of Public Works, told The Boston Globe. "It’s vile,” he said. “We’re finding crazy stuff; bicycles, orange cones that people used as space savers — the funniest thing they found was half of a $5 bill. They’re looking for the other half still.”
On top of a five-story pile of snow.
On top of a five-story pile of snow.
Wochit News
There really is science involved in the melting of the snow piles asked Michael Dietze, an associate professor in Boston University’s Earth & Environment department, why the piles of snow were taking so darned long to melt. Dietze explained that it boils down to three reasons: "the incredible energy needed to change a solid to liquid, the lack of rain, and the thickness of the piles."
The first reason has to do with the Latent heat of fusion. This is the energy needed to change a substance into another state of matter. Dietze says this is the energy a thermometer can't measure as heat. When the temperature reaches 32 degrees, ice doesn't immediately begin to melt. Moving from one state of matter, ice, to another, water, takes an enormous amount of energy.
To turn ice into water is called latent heat of fusion. Turning water into vapor is called latent heat of vaporization. The lack of rain is another good reason for the snow piles still hanging around. Air is a good insulator, and snow piles have lots of pockets of air. Rain would pierce right through the snow piles and hit the pockets of air.
Because rain is warmer, the wetter the air pockets, the quicker the melting would take effect. "The more wet things are, the worse they are at insulating against the outside temperature; imagine a wet down jacket vs. a dry one,” says Dietze. But sadly, Boston has experienced the driest May on Record since 1944, with only a scant 0.31 inches of precipitation for the month.
Putting all the snow in one place was a great idea, but doing so created another problem. They will take much longer to melt than a thin layer of snow on the pavement. This is because the more surface area of snow there is, the quicker it will melt. That is why a snowman will hang around for a few days, even after the snow has melted on the ground.
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