Spring Equinox – when the Sun shines directly on the equator and the length of day and night is nearly equal – marks the beginning of Spring in Canada. This year, Mississauga, our city in Canada, and the entire Greater Toronto Area (GTA) welcomed the Spring Season with freezing rain. The entire area was paved in a sheet of ice due to an overnight freezing rain with minus ten degrees temperature on the morning of 24 March 2016. This proved hazardous for the morning commuters, resulting in many accidents on the roads and highways. The drivers of the cars parked in the open found it difficult to even open their car’s doors as they were either slipping on the glass surfaced floor or the doors had been jammed by the freezing ice. These drivers first had to scrape off the ice from the doors and windshields and then drive on glass like roads.
The public transport was also affected as the drivers were extra cautious and driving slow on the icy roads. It was compounded by many non-functioning traffic lights due to power outages. The street cars were delayed due to ice forming on overhead power lines. The trains were delayed, mostly due to failure of the signalling systems. In effect, most people that day reached their offices late.
Over a hundred flights were cancelled and many delayed due to the freezing rain. The landing and taxiing surfaces had to be cleared of the ice regularly, causing major delays. The de-icing activity had to be carried out on all aircrafts prior to take-off, contributing to further delay.
The problem of ice forming over the wings and tail of the aircrafts is a major concern as it adversely affects the performance of the aircraft, especially at take-off due to reduced lift. This ice has to be removed and the airports in Canada are equipped with deicers. These are vehicles that spray a mixture of a glycol and water, heated and sprayed under pressure, to remove ice and snow on the aircraft surfaces.
While it removes ice and snow, deicing fluid has a limited ability to prevent further ice from forming. During snow fall or freezing rain, anti-icing fluid is applied after the deicing process is complete. This fluid is of a higher concentration of glycol than deicing fluid. It has a freezing point well below zero degrees Celsius and therefore is able to prevent the precipitation that falls on to it from freezing on the aircraft’s surface. Anti-icing fluid also has an additive that thickens it more than deicing fluid to help it stick to aircraft surfaces as it speeds down the runway during takeoff.
What causes the dreaded freezing rains?
Freezing rain develops as falling snow encounters a layer of warm air deep enough for the snow to completely melt and become rain. As the rain continues to fall, it passes through a thin layer of cold air just above the surface and cools to a temperature below freezing point. However, the drops themselves do not freeze, but remain in liquid state due to a phenomena called supercooling. When the supercooled drops strike the frozen ground (power lines, or tree branches), they instantly freeze, forming a thin film of ice, resulting in the phenomenon freezing rain.
While beautiful to look at, freezing rain is one of the most hazardous types of winter precipitation. Accumulations of a tenth of an inch of freezing rain may not sound significant, but is more than enough to break a few branches on the trees, bring down power lines (and cause power outages), and cause sleet on road surfaces.
The freezing rain drops on hitting a tree branch or a power line condenses around it as these objects are at a much lower temperature than the supercooled rain drops. As they accumulate, the weight of the tree branch or the power line keeps increasing. Once this weight crosses the strength of the material, it snaps and falls on the ground. Fallen tree branches and downed power lines blocking traffic was reported from many places across Toronto that morning. In case of a snow fall, the snowflakes even if they accumulate on trees and power lines, tend to slide off them due to their own weight.
The freezing rain left streets under a layer of ice on Thursday morning and prompted the closure of many schools, colleges and universities. The students were very pleased as they had a real long Easter weekend – holidays for five days – from that Thursday to Easter Monday.
Over 30,000 customers experienced power outages due to downed power lines or due to tree branches falling on power lines. The crews of the power companies worked round the clock to ensure speedy restoration of power.
Police services across the Greater Toronto Area warned motorists to slow down due to ice. They also asked drivers to treat all lighted intersections without power as all-way stop signs. That meant any vehicle approaching a failed signal must come to a halt and the vehicle which halted first leaves first. The emergency services were working at full efficiency to cater for many road accidents and to assist drivers who had spun off the road.
Environment Canada had warned about the impending freezing rain about a week before it occurred. Various TV and Radio News channels where covering it in full details and warning the citizens to be careful and take remedial actions where required. The salter trucks of the city were seen early morning spreading salt on the roads and sidewalks to facilitate melting of the sleet that had formed on the surfaces. The contractors at the shopping malls were literally dumping salt on the parking lot surfaces, as if with vengeance, because there were only three or four occasions this winter (due to less snow this year) where in they had to salt the parking lots. What else would they do with the salt they had stocked for the winter? It would always be cheaper to spread them rather stock them through summer.
How does salt act as an ice melter? All icy surfaces have a thin layer of water. When salt (Sodium Chloride – NaCl) applied to such surfaces, starts to dissolve. This ionises the salt into positively charged sodium and negatively charged chlorine ions. These ions, in turn, react with water molecules and form hydrated ions (charged ions joined to water molecules).
This process gives off heat, because hydrates are more stable than the individual ions. The emitted energy then melts microscopic parts of the ice surface. When an automobile drives over the ice, the pressure helps force the salt into the ice and more of this hydration occurs.
The ice-cream makers of the pre-refrigerator days employed the same principle (freezing point depression). The ice and salt mixture ensured that the temperature was well below the freezing mark (zero degrees C), even though the ice melted. Dry Ice or solid carbon di oxide was also used as a more sophisticated alternative. That begs the question why is solid carbon-di-oxide (CO2) called dry ice? This is because the solid carbon di oxide on being heated does not melt into liquid and instead changes directly into the gaseous state by a process called sublimation.
When daffodils begin to peer,
With heigh! the doxy, over the dale,
Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year;
For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.
The white sheet bleaching on the hedge,
With heigh! the sweet birds, O, how they sing!
Doth set my pugging tooth on edge;
For a quart of ale is a dish for a king.
(William Shakespeare : The Winter’s Tale)