Salty Challenges

Ordering the perfect amount of road salt is a bit of a Catch-22. Without knowing exactly what winter will bring, public works managers must predict — and pay for — their salt supply months in advance. If the city does not place an adequate order, the roads may become impassable in the event of a winter storm, barring any possibility of additional salt shipments.

Not having enough salt is disastrous: one day of closed roads can cost a city between $300 million and $700 million. Since safe roads are an absolute essential, transportation agencies tend to prepare for the “worst case” winter scenario and order 125% of what they think they’ll need.

Still, even the most well-equipped city can face challenges. The particularly brutal 2013-14 winter season shocked North American cities and resulted in a national salt shortage. Georgia, a state accustomed to mild winters, was walloped by a blizzard that disabled entire highway systems and caused numerous accidents. Following its disastrous winter, Georgia ordered an additional 12,000 tons of salt. Though salt prices per ton rose significantly after that winter, this is one commodity that communities can’t afford to skimp on.

Salt as a solution for winter roads isn’t going anywhere. Warmer winters, in fact, increase the need for salt, since snow clears more easily off cold roads than warm ones. So, the intricate supply chain that keeps road salt stocked — and the laboratories working to design the perfect crystal — will still be vital, even as average winter temperatures trend upwards. This is one natural resource we’ll never run out of.

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