Survey Finds 70% of State DOTs are Tracking El Niño’s Potential Impacts on Winter Weather
WASHINGTON – The tricky-to-track ocean and atmospheric phenomenon known as El Niño has prompted state departments of transportation to make winter weather preparations in the face of uncertainty.
As winter is set to officially begin, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials is releasing the results of a first-of-its-kind survey on winter weather preparations. 70% of the 41 responding state departments of transportation reported they’re closely tracking El Niño – because the weather phenomenon is predicted to impact their region this winter.
“The primary goal of state DOTs is to maintain mobility throughout the year,” said Bud Wright, AASHTO executive director. “Winter time is no exception and, according to our survey, even some of our southern-most states are tracking El Niño and preparing accordingly.”
41 state departments of transportation participated in the survey from late November through mid-December 2015, responding to a range of questions about winter maintenance and preparation.
“We know there’s going to be impacts due to El Niño this season,” said Rick Nelson, AASHTO snow and ice cooperative program manager. “There’s also a lot of uncertainty about when and how the roads in each state will be impacted. We’ve already seen flooding and mudslides in the Pacific Northwest and early snowfalls and warmer temperatures in other parts of the country. State DOTs are preparing for whatever happens and, at the same time, they’re also hoping for the best.”
According to experts, El Niño weather patterns typically bring wetter weather to the Pacific Coast and the southern United States. Temperatures in the North are expected to be warmer while the South will be cooler.
The survey finds that 40% of DOTs located in a patchwork of states across the country have increased salt supplies this year in anticipation of more snow and ice. 90% of survey respondents report using Road Weather Information System (RWIS) sensor technology. Sensors attached to maintenance vehicles, located on weather stations or embedded in roadways and bridges collect and transmit data about atmospheric and road conditions. The data gives maintenance officials the ability to make informed decisions about when and where to deploy equipment to plow roads or apply salt and other deicing chemicals, saving time and money.
“We’ve got 97 RWIS weather stations located across Minnesota,” said Steve Lund, MnDOT state maintenance engineer. “These fixed high-tech stations also are equipped with cameras that have been linked to the state’s traveler information system. Now motorists can see for themselves what driving conditions are like before they decide to get behind the wheel.”
Motorists are strongly encouraged to utilize all of the travel information resources available through their state DOT. More than 70% of survey respondents indicated that their agency is using social media to educate and prepare travelers about winter weather, and 73% reported their agency is using a mobile app to keep motorists informed about current road conditions.
“In Iowa our slogan is ‘know before you go’,” said Andrea Henry, Iowa DOT communications director. “Our 511 traveler information system is accessible through our website, social media, and an app for mobile devices. Motorists are using 511 to plan their trips throughout the year – and during winter it’s especially helpful because drivers can get up-to-date information about road conditions, the locations of traffic incidents and closures, and travel speeds on sections of roadway. All drivers need to be prepared and 511 is helping them to stay informed and safe.”