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How in the heck do you get a road salt shortage?

The price of road salt has skyrocketed because there’s not enough? Seriously, how can the world possibly run short of salt? We’ve got entire oceans full of salt. We have salt mines, salt flats, pillars of salt. The expression shouldn’t be “salt of the earth”; it should be “the earth is salt”.

Besides, why can’t we just dig up all the ground alongside the roadways, extract the salt that’s been washing into it for the last century, and put it back down again? It’s the ultimate reclamation project. It would be like … raising insurance rates on a litigation lawyer.

Okay, so there really is a salt shortage, because of high demand due to heavy snow last winter. Thank you, global warming! Remember the old days, when large areas of the Great Lakes would freeze over, which in turn stopped lake effect snow from falling? You don’t? Oh. Well, that doesn’t happen anymore.

There’s also a shortage of experienced salt miners, and shipping problems developed on the Mississippi River. Since President-Elect Obama has suggested bankrupting coal mining operations, I suppose the question of finding experienced miners will solve itself; however, humans don’t have much real control over the Mighty Mississippi.

The Farmer’s Almanac forecasted a greater than normal snowfall again this year, but I didn’t need them to tell me that. As soon as I first heard about the salt shortage, I predicted a cold, snowy winter. In fact, I told everyone I met. Remember when I predicted this economic recession two years ago? No? Well, I did. It’s never good when I’m right -- but if I’m going to be right anyway, I might as well brag about it.

I’m no expert on snow removal (heh – I’m no expert on anything), but I would guess a number of small snow events would be worse than one big snowstorm. Why? Because each time it snows even a little, highway crews might have to go out and put down abrasives. Therefore, I also predicted we’d have a lot of little annoying snowfalls. So far, once more, I’ve been right.

Hey, I’m just the messenger.

So we’re going to run out of salt. Sand is being used instead, but all it does is add a little traction – it can’t melt the ice that the packed down snow turns into. Officials have reacted by telling drivers to be more careful; good advice that’s likely to be followed only by those people who were already careful drivers, anyway. People who were already driving like idiots aren’t going to stop, even if they did read the news, which they don’t.

What can we do? I mean, other than move to New Mexico, which by the by, I haven’t been able to find a place I can afford yet?

Well, there’s that old, tired cliché, of course: Mount politicians on the front bumpers of our snow plows and have them give standard stump speeches. In theory all that hot air would melt the snow and maybe the asphalt, too, but in reality it might just make things worse: politicians can be very slippery.

We could run to Wal-Mart and order 5,000 cases of table salt. Imagine all the heart attacks that would prevent.

We could spray down the pavement with water and simply start skating to work and school. If you saw me trying to stand up on skates, let alone move, you could understand why I don’t like that idea.

We could form jail and prison inmates into chain gangs and have them walk along, chipping the ice off the roadway. But there’s a lot of roadway out there, and by the time they finished at one end of the county it would be time to go back and start all over. Not sure I see a downside with that one.

We could hire our teenagers to do the job. I know what you’re thinking: Wouldn’t it be just as slow as inmates? Not if we withheld access to any kind of electronic device until they were finished – they’d get a move on, and be done before the first signs of Text Withdrawal hit.

Cruel and inhuman, you say? Well, they’re teenagers – so does the definition of “human” even apply? This is a crisis, people, we have to make some allowances. They’ll thank us someday, when they’re human again.

We could tear off all the asphalt and replace it with a foot deep layer of sand. Then we wouldn’t have to go out and spread sand on the roads, and could use that money to buy more salt. Brilliant, huh?

We could be the first place in the country to experiment with an all work-from-home economy. Everybody just stays home all winter long, sending their work in by e-mail, or using the internet for schooling, or maybe turning out factory parts in their garages. Nobody uses the roads. I’m for staying inside all winter.

We could use beet juice.

No, seriously. Many cities, including Elkhart and Chicago, apply beet juice to streets before laying salt down. The salt sticks to the juice instead of bouncing off the pavement, so less has to be used. For the first time in my life, I love beets.

Or – brace yourself for this one – we could do nothing.

When the salt runs out, stop using it. After all, there’s nothing in the Constitution guaranteeing the right to good roads. Tell people to be careful, and they’re on their own. Of course, most people will still drive too fast for the conditions, there’ll be more crashes, and emergency services will struggle to get to those crash scenes quickly and safely, while dispatchers are overwhelmed with calls.

On the brighter side, insurance company payouts will help get car sales back up – at least in the Midwest.

Basically what I’m saying is, I don’t have a clue what to do. Just be careful.

And keep the politicians warmed up, just in case.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 4th, 2008 09:54 am (UTC)
Yeah, since Detroit is built on top of salt mines I find the whole salt shortage interesting myself...

And that beet juice stuff really works I understand. So let's get those farmers working on that one.
Dec. 4th, 2008 11:45 am (UTC)
If only people understood how much we depend on farmers in so many different areas ...

I've been hearing more and more about salt sources closer to home, but frankly it didn't fit with the theme of the column. :-) You're right, though -- very interesting. Interesting, and suspicious.
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 6th, 2008 01:30 am (UTC)
Everybody needs a specialty!
Dec. 4th, 2008 03:43 pm (UTC)
We tend to alternate between being hyper efficient with salt spreading, generally because the previous year we were useless and useless. The later involves waiting for the snow to fall and then using the salt to ensure it turns into more deadly slushy ice.

Needless to say we have snow here in the north of the country, not much but enough to grind us to a halt. Just waiting for it down south. Strange that it seems to be the third cold winter on the trot. Personally I think Brown is a servant of the white witch and that's the reason.:-)

Great column as usual.
Dec. 6th, 2008 01:45 am (UTC)
The white witch thing is as good an explanation as any ... our winters have gotten increasingly colder the last few years, also. Still waiting for that global warming to kick in for us -- we're always the last to pick up the newest trends.

Our snow plow drivers get lots of practice, so they're on the ball -- and they get the roads plowed as well as they can before spreading salt, so slush isn't too much of a problem for us. The main highways stay in fairly good shape once the storm is over, but I don't get near the secondary roads until spring, if I can help it. no matter how well plowed a road is, once it gets that layer of ice on it without being salted, it stays hazardous. Most people really have learned to slow down and be careful, but every population has its idiots.
Dec. 4th, 2008 07:46 pm (UTC)
I think you're on the way to solving Michigan's financial/employment crisis! Detroit's built on a salt mine and they grow (sugar) beets in the center of the state. Now to get Michigan supplying the entire snow belt with salt and beet juice... you may be a genius. *g*
Dec. 6th, 2008 01:48 am (UTC)
You're the second person to mention Detroit's salt mines ... let's get digging! As for beets, if I never taste another one of those it'll be too soon, so I'm all for putting the juice on highways. It might be seasonal work, but at least it'll get laid off employees through the winter!

Edited at 2008-12-06 01:48 am (UTC)
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 6th, 2008 01:54 am (UTC)
I see the one where you're cursing LJ, and the one with the who advent calendar ... There! There's the alert one; I haven't gotten that far on my flist yet, because I've been alternating between cleaning house and coming down with a cold and haven't been online. It is there on my friend's list, though.
Dec. 5th, 2008 10:26 pm (UTC)
We could be the first place in the country to experiment with an all work-from-home economy. Everybody just stays home all winter long, sending their work in by e-mail, or using the internet for schooling, or maybe turning out factory parts in their garages. Nobody uses the roads.

Sounds like a good idea, but how would we get food then?
Dec. 6th, 2008 01:56 am (UTC)
Why, that's simple! We'd ... um ...

Okay, there's a naysayer in every crowd, isn't there? Clearly, we'd look to those insane maniacs who actually *like* being out in the winter, and we'd have them bring the food in by snowmobile and cross-country skiing. Hah! :-)
Dec. 6th, 2008 02:41 am (UTC)
What about airlifts?
Dec. 6th, 2008 02:59 am (UTC)
That was the first thing that came to my mind, but I thought it would be more fun to tease those lunatics -- um, people who love winter. We actually had a doctor airlifted in to take care of a woman in labor way back during the blizzard of '78, so there's always that possibility in real life.
Dec. 21st, 2008 03:59 pm (UTC)
Yep. I live in Michigan which is essentially built on salt mines - my grandfather used to work in them - but they've really been cutting back this year. And I live in a county that is usually pretty liberal with the salting.

I've taken to saying that this is the fallout of an economic apocolypse - and if you had been driving Friday afternoon you would agree - but I've been told by several people to take my little tin hat elsewhere.

MY first instinct, by the way, was kitty litter. That's what we always used when we were short on salt to get our cars out. ;)
Dec. 22nd, 2008 07:11 am (UTC)
Kitty litter should do the job to get a stuck car free, even if it wouldn't actually melt ice. But suppose there is then a kitty litter shortage -- imagine the disaster that might result!

Several people have now told me there's a lot of salt in Michigan, which makes the shortage mystery even more, well, mysterious. That brings me right back to the conspiracy theory: that it's all a plot to wreck a lot of cars ... then more will have to be bought to replace them, putting the auto industry back into business. Genius.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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