Pollutants in the Springtime Melting Snow

Spring has arrived for the northern hemisphere and the snow is beginning to melt. But according to a new study out of the University of Toronto, Scarborough (UTSC), the snow melt brings with it a massive uptick in pollutants.

“During the winter months, contaminants accumulate in the snow,” said Torsten Meyer, an environmental chemist, expert on snow-bound organic contaminants, and a post-doctoral fellow at UTSC. “When the snow melts, these chemicals are released into the environment at high concentrations.”

Meyer’s research noted two separate flushes of contaminants as a result of spring’s arrival.

First, at the beginning of the spring, the more water soluble organic contaminants may seep out of the snow and into the surrounding ground water or surface water.

Secondly, at the end of the melt, the more, as Torsten put it to me in an email, “hydrophobic substances,” which have accumulated on top and turned the snow pack black and dirty, will finally enter into the waters as the last of the snow disappears.

As a result, there are two peak contaminant releases from the melting snow pack: “one at the beginning of the melt period involving water soluble chemicals, and one at the end involving particle associated chemicals.”

The results were obtained in a one of a kind set up designed by Meyer in a temperature-controlled laboratory at UTSC where he creates large baths of fresh snow already filled with pollutants. This gives the researchers the opportunity to slowly melt the snow, collect the melt-water, and track which chemicals emerge from the snow pack and when.

This research, despite Meyers view that his work is just fundamental research, has important implications for municipalities and cities, such as where they should locate their snow dump sites so that when the snow does melt there is little to no chance the contaminants can leech into any important water supply.

“Getting quantitative information on the flush of contaminants from a melting snowpack is particularly important,” says Professor Frank Wania, head of Meyer’s research cluster at UTSC. “The melt often coincides with time periods when many aquatic organisms are at a vulnerable stage of their life cycle.”

Authors NoteThanks to Torsten Meyer for speaking to me via email on this subject, and explaining those aspects which had hidden themselves from my understanding.

Source: University of Toronto Scarborough
Image Source: Martin Cathrae

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