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1948 Mayor To MIT: Use Flamethrowers To Melt Snow? 203

An anonymous reader writes "In 1948 Boston mayor James Curley freaked out because of the record amounts of snow. He wrote to MIT and begged for help, even suggested using flamethrowers to melt it. (Check out the original type-written letter.)"
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1948 Mayor To MIT: Use Flamethrowers To Melt Snow?

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  • by Missing.Matter ( 1845576 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @12:49PM (#35091556)
    I'd like to head out there and just use some brush burners to get rid of the snow on my driveway.
    • I have 6' drifts on either side of my driveway - I have no problems with a couple of gallons of napalm to clear them.
    • I've done it, it's not very effective, cold concrete covered in ice and snow, talk about a heat sink.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by SniperJoe ( 1984152 )
        You could always use the Mythbusters adage. "When in doubt, C4."
      • by blair1q ( 305137 )

        Concrete is actually a pretty good insulator. It's the Heat of Fusion that's screwing you over. Imagine dumping your entire tank of liquid propane across the sidewalk and lighting it on fire. It'd burn for a couple of minutes and make the ice slick, but certainly not melt it all.

        Salt is really the quickest means of disposing of frozen water. And it's pretty energy-efficient. It just doesn't do the environment much good.

    • It certainly works; but the enthalpy of fusion of water is damn high. Useful when icing drinks; but means that you'll need a great deal of energy to turn even just-below-freezing snow into just-above-freezing water.

      Using jet engines mounted on vehicles as combination snow blowers/melters has been done [](those crazy ruskies...); but fighter engines aren't exactly known for their fuel economy.

      For the suitably well-heeled, thermostatically controlled resistive heaters, cast into concrete or buried under a
    • I believe this is what you want - the Snow Dragon []. As a side benefit, it takes the contaminants out of the snow so the water runoff can go directly into the sewers. The water is actually cleaner than when it was snow! The city of Minneapolis just bought some of these, but they are still far to small to melt serious volumes of snow. They are mostly being used downtown or in parking lots as an alternative to hauling the snow away in dump trucks.
    • Heard about a guy who used primacord to shovel his sidewalks.

      1) Run a length down the middle of the sidewalk.
      2) Set it off. WHACK!
      3) Result: Clean walk and two piles of snow beside it.
      4) Profit?

      5) Try to explain this to the BATF(E) and DHS.
      6) Collect a free Club Gitmo T-shirt.

      Haven't tried this myself yet, so can't tell you whether/how well it actually works.

      Probably won't,either, since the Supreme Court seems unlikely to extend District of Columbia v. Helle

  • by yincrash ( 854885 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @12:53PM (#35091600)
    don't cities like this have steam plants with steam pipes through significant portions of the city? divert some steam to melt some snow
    • Holland, MI actually does do this. They use the steam pipes to heat the sidewalks and streets of their downtown area.
      • Penn State also was pretty good about having the steam pipes follow walking pathways/sidewalks. Every once in a while, there'd be a grate in the sidewalk pouring out heat. Pretty cool when you're too broke to buy proper winter clothes...

      • When I lived in NJ, I install a solar water heating system on the roof of the home, I had it build during the summer when I was rebuilding my home, slight a bit OVER-SIZED and it worked well. One trick that I added to the system was simple, I had an engineer figure out how to plumb the stairs, sidewalk, driveway and used the solar heated water to warm things a bit.

        Well it worked rather well, all I had to do was to flick a switch in the morning, the sidewalk would get a slightly warmer, when the snow fell i

        • Didn't you have any problems dealing with the melt water? I would think that the water would just re-freeze when it runs off the heated part.

          • Didn't you have any problems dealing with the melt water? I would think that the water would just re-freeze when it runs off the heated part.

            Since we just had a major snowfall in the Chicago area, I'd just point out that I have piles of snow next to my driveway that are at their highest almost 6ft tall from clearing the driveway and sidewalks. It's not possible to clear the driveway of snow and ice completely, due it not being perfectly flat.

            I cleared the driveway down to about 1/2 an inch of snow, and spread salt on it.

            My driveway is now dry - not covered in either ice or salt water - there is a dry salt residue on it.

            The water didn't run off,

  • by ChairmanMeow ( 787164 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @12:54PM (#35091614) Journal

    When the snow melts, the contaminants are going to go into the river anyway, so why does it make sense to ban dumping the snow in the river?

    Anyway, in my thermodynamics class back in college, one problem we were given was to calculate how much energy it would take to melt all the snow across the campus. The thermodynamics does not work to the advantage of economically getting rid of the snow using flamethrowers.

    • by Attila Dimedici ( 1036002 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @01:07PM (#35091806)
      A couple of years ago, a major city near me started to do that. They had to stop because it was causing flooding. The sudden addition of snow from all around the city raised water levels in the river to the point that it was starting to overflow its banks. Additionally, because the snow was frozen, it caused the river the freeze up in such a way as to slow its flow, causing flooding of communities upriver from the city.
    • In most cities, when the snow on streets/sidewalks melts, the water and contaminants don't go into the river, but go into sewage where it's filtered and otherwise treated before reaching the river.

      • Actually, in most cities the storm drains aren't connected to the sewage system, they're separate pipes that usually drain unfiltered to a nearby body of water like a river.

      • by Y-Crate ( 540566 )

        While the desire to keep pollutants out of the waterways is a noble one, storm drains in Boston empty directly into the harbor, or Charles River (which empties into the harbor). The drains are even labeled with warnings about this.

        The whole "we don't want to pollute the harbor" line people hear from the city every winter makes sense until you realize that the pollutant-filled runoff is going to end up in the harbor anyway.

    • Economic advantage my ass. Flamethrowes are fun and that's all. Of course the downside of melting your 6' snow drifts with a flamethrower is a bunch of water which is just going to freeze anyway. I prefer to use the flamethrower mounted on my gun when I play Black Ops. It's much more fun that way. Just don't get me started on those damn Napalm strikes.
    • by arth1 ( 260657 )

      When the snow melts, the contaminants are going to go into the river anyway, so why does it make sense to ban dumping the snow in the river?

      Imagine you're a fish in that river, then ask yourself whether you'd rather want a few weeks of melt-water filtered through the ground seeping into the river, or tonnes of snow dumped on top of you.

      From a more human point of view, there's also the possibility of snow causing blockage. If the river is cold, the snow won't melt immediately, and can cause ice floes.

    • In my thermodynamics class back in college, one problem we were given was to calculate how much energy it would take to melt all the snow across the campus.

      One of the things that always boggles me about winter is that there is no addition of cold in any meaningful way, negative thermal energy not really existing; the world (well, hemisphere) gets substantially colder because it continues losing heat at the same rate it does in summer, but now it's not being replaced by the sun. All of those huge waves of warm and cold air that we live or die by are inefficiencies in heat getting from the ground (or anywhere else it's absorbed) to space.

      Makes the world, and hu

    • When the snow melts in the springtime, the meltwater trickles runs through the grass, soaks through the ground, goes through wetlands, etc... all of which removes contaminants from it. When you dump the snow straight into the harbor, none of that happens - all the pollutants go straight into the ocean.
  • I'm not sure what we will do if another 12" falls.

    Although gasoline and flamethrowers would just lead to fires, I've wondered what a 100K BTU industrial propane heater would do. (Picture below.) Has anyone tried this? []

    • by alta ( 1263 )

      Unless you get out there and start pointing this thing all over the place, it'll melt a nice straight line somewhere.

      And, you said 100k, but this is 50k. Was there a 100k model somewhere?

      Now if there was an oscillating version!

    • by Temkin ( 112574 )

      Simple... The snow melts, the water flows a few feet out of the path of the heater, and freezes solid, exposing you to potential liability if someone slips and breaks their hip.


      • "...if someone slips and breaks their hip."

        Use the flame thrower on them before they sue. With a broken hip, it's not like they can run away.

    • by MozeeToby ( 1163751 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @01:23PM (#35092010)

      CT Homes have 4-5ft deep piles.

      I'm not sure what we will do if another 12" falls.

      As someone who grew up in an area that managed not to call 2 feet of snow a national emergency (which is about all it takes to create 5' piles), you take the new snow and throw it on top of the pile. Or, if necessary, you make the base of the pile bigger. If really and absolutely necessary, you pile the new snow into a sled and pull the sled into the middle of the lawn and dump it there. Sometimes the answer to a difficult problem really is just to work a bit harder. Sad but true.

    • by mspohr ( 589790 )
      I've lived in the Sierras for the past 30 years and every winter we get more than 20 ft of snow. This year we had 18' in Nov and Dec (but January has been dry and sunny). I currently have about 3' in the yard and piles over 6' near the driveway and road.

      How do we deal with snow that is regularly more than the "snowpocalypse" currently in rest of the country? We have "snow plows" and "snow blowers". You may have heard of them. They push the snow out of the way and pile it up out of the way. It all mel

      • by treeves ( 963993 )

        OT: I've noticed a lot of people using this word "whinging" lately. Is it an intentional misspelling of "whining"? Why is it so popular?

        • by mspohr ( 589790 )
          Whinging...intr.v. whinged, whingÂing, whingÂes Chiefly British. To complain or protest, especially in an annoying or persistent manner. ...

          I picked this up from my Brit friends and like it better than "whining"

    • by blair1q ( 305137 )

      100k BTU/Hour = 105400000 Joule/hour
      105400000 Joule/hour / 333550 Joule/kg = 316 kg/hour

      316 kg/hour * 1.04 liter/kg = 0.33 m^3/hour

      assume a uniform thickness of 0.25 cm for the ice and a width of 3 m for the sidewalk; that's 0.0075 m^3 of ice per meter of length.

      0.33 m^3/hour / 0.0075 m^3/m = 43.8 m/hour.

      That heater would take an hour to clear a tenth of an inch of ice from in front of one building.

      New snow has a density typically about 10% that of water, so a tenth of an inch of ice would be about one inch

    • by jbengt ( 874751 )

      I've wondered what a 100K BTU industrial propane heater would do.

      The water equivalent of the recent snow in Chicago was reported to be 1.5"+/-, that's about 7.8 lbs / sq ft.
      It takes about 144 btus to melt a pound of snow, if you assume 32F ice and 32F water.(the current temprature is about 20F and you need more than 32F water to keep it melted, but I'll ignore that.)
      So, if I did my math correctly, you would clear only about 90 sq ft per hour with a 100,000 buth heater. (It's btu/hr, not btu. Sorry for the pedantry, but it bugs me when people drop the "h")
      That's not v

  • by Maniacal ( 12626 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @12:59PM (#35091674)
    Tell him we need a giant version, STAT.
    • by pavon ( 30274 )

      But you aren't adding any more heat to the system as the sun is already hitting the snow; you are just making it warmer on one place and colder in other places. You also risk having the melted snow refreezing as ice once you move the deathray to another location. I wonder if there are inexpensive ways to change the albedo of snow, like sprinkling soot on the snow that would help in addition to salting it to lower the melting point.

      • by Maniacal ( 12626 )
        Dude. You just argued AGAINST a giant deathray.
      • I wonder if there are inexpensive ways to change the albedo of snow, like sprinkling soot on the snow that would help in addition to salting it to lower the melting point.

        On a small scale, yes. My parents (living in Maine) use a woodstove to heat the house. They use the ashes to melt the ice at the base of the front steps.

        You would need a lot of ash to make a dent on a snowbank though. And that much ash is a huge mess in the springtime.

  • by RunzWithScissors ( 567704 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @01:07PM (#35091808)
    Step 1: build pier into the ocean
    Step 2: push snow off pier into ocean
    Step 3: ????
    Step 4: PROFIT!!!!!!

  • by SethThresher ( 1958152 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @01:08PM (#35091812)
    Doesn't the Secret Service have a supply of flame throwers they've used in the past to clear out streets when the president is suddenly snowed in somewhere? I remember reading about that, but I don't remember which president it was for...
  • by SuperBanana ( 662181 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @01:08PM (#35091822)
    Many cities use snow melters to deal with snow; that's basically the same thing. I really wonder why environmentalists aren't up in arms about it; the snow melters can burn hundreds of gallons of fuel an hour, which is more fuel than it takes to a heat a house for a month.
    • Toronto has such a machine: []
      • by blair1q ( 305137 )

        136 tonnes (metric, likely) of snow times 333.55 joules/kg to melt it is 45.3 GJ/hr

        a gallon of gasoline gives about 125k BTU per gallon, which at 1054 j/BTU is 132 MJ/gal.

        45.4 GJ/hr / 132 MJ/gal = 344 gallons per hour of gasoline.

        How big is 136 tonnes?

        Well, if one lane of a road is 10 feet wide, and the snow is 1/10th the density of water (which is typical for new snow on the ground), a foot of snow is 0.28 m^3 per linear foot and that weighs about 28 kg. 136 tonnes would then cover 136000/28 = 4850 linear

    • I bet if you made a pie chart of all energy used for heating homes vs. snow melters on an annual basis, the snow melters would look quite small.
    • Hauling the snow away also burns fuel. I imagine in some places the snow melters might actually be more efficient.

      • Correct. Melting can be more efficient than hauling the snow somewhere in a truck. Also, snow removed from parking lots and roads isn't exactly clean. It is full of trash and pollutants. The snow-melting rigs will filter the water before discharging it.

  • I think a slightly more sensible version of flamethrowers would be to use giant halogen heaters in place of streetlights, and feed them megawatts of energy. Quite apart from solving the snow problem, we could even keep our streets warm that way for people to walk along generally.
  • Okay, let's say you melt the snow with a giant flamethrower. Then what do you do? Move on to the next patch with your giant flamethrower. What happens to the first patch that you burned the crap out of? It re-freezes, not into another snow drift, but a sheet of ice several inches thick.
  • What does it take to melt one kilogram of snow vs shovel it up and truck it away? The latent heat of fusion of ice is 335 kJ/kg. So what does it take to truck it away? This would depend in part on the packing density of the snow.

    And don't forget the teamsters wages for plow/truck drivers vs the Flame Thrower Local contract terms.

  • That reminded me of a post on Gizmodo awhile back where someone was already doing that [].
    • Not really melting the snow, though it does do that a bit. It's mostly used like a humongous leafblower to simply move the snow.

  • by PolygamousRanchKid ( 1290638 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @01:38PM (#35092222)
    I first watched this film in German ... and then I watched it later in English ... some guy (with a brilliant Texan accent) traded some guns with flame throwers and nets to some creepy crawler alien folks for stones which they didn't have. It's a hoot and a half!
  • Most major northern airports have snow melters that do exactly that, melt snow. They work pretty well. []

    Of course, we can't have our railways held hostage by snow either, in that case, they just strap a jet engine onto a rail care and melt snow that way. []

    Where there is a problem, we'll find a solution!

  • What could possibly go wrong?
  • by dcigary ( 221160 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @01:49PM (#35092388) Homepage

    So, they can't dump it into the river because of contaminants, but instead they'll wait for it to melt and wash into the river?

    Am I missing something here?

    • by Ogive17 ( 691899 )
      Not all drains go straight to the nearest water source. It's possible it goes through a quick treatment first.
    • There's an extremely long history of people considering that actions that lead to a bad result are bad, while inaction that leads to the same bad result is much less bad. I'm not saying it's a logical mindset, but it is very definitely how humans think. A common example, when ethics and economics people talk about this, is: if you push someone in front of a train you're a murderer, but if you don't pull someone who is on the tracks off, or signal the train to stop, you're merely a selfish bastard.
  • the russians don't mess around when it comes to snow removal. they take a klimov vk-1 jet engine from a mig-15 and strap it on a truck, amongst other eyebrow raising configurations: []

    i think i would step a little livelier if i saw a snow plow like that coming at me down the street

  • by Weaselmancer ( 533834 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @01:56PM (#35092476)

    Something about letters from that era that are just so simply elegant. I love reading letters from that time.

  • by Raul654 ( 453029 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @02:25PM (#35093008) Homepage

    The night before John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961, a snowstorm dumped 8 inches of snow on Washington DC. The Army Corps of Engineers worked franticly, using flamethrowers to clear the streets. Click here [] for the full story.

    • by Misagon ( 1135 )
      I doubt that they were actually using flame throwers. They must have confused them with some kind of large blowtorch. A flame thrower propels burning fuel or napalm over a distance. That fuel sticks to whatever it lands on and continues burning. A flame thrower is supposed to inflict serious burns. You can not use a flame thrower to clear snow without a serious risk of starting unintended fires.
  • So, federal law prevents them from dumping the "contaminated" snow in the Charles river, or the harbor. What I would like to know is this: where do they think all that snow is going to go if it melts on its own?

  • He needs to make sure these "Engineers" are properly licensed.

    Or else he would have had to write another letter.

  • by Mad-cat ( 134809 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @06:43PM (#35097476) Homepage

    While it sounds funny, when I actually read it my thought was "he seems like a reasonable man."

    He saw something happening, used his past observations to predict a likely outcome if no action was taken, realized this outcome would be dangerous to the people he was sworn to protect, and then asked people who are smarter than he is what he should do to prevent or reduce the bad outcome.

    He gave them some ideas that he had come up with and asked if they were worth investigating. While they may have been silly ideas, at least he had the common sense to ask smarter people for help figuring out what to do instead of just pursuing whatever boneheaded idea he came up with. Does anyone remember the recent "possums released into NYC to deal with rats" story?

    I think we could use more public officials like this guy.

  • by Foobar of Borg ( 690622 ) on Thursday February 03, 2011 @09:13PM (#35099242)

    This a new low, even for slashdot. I know stories are late here, but 1948???

    Next on slashdot, an article about how scientists are developing this interesting electronic device called a "computer" and how it will revolutionize the world.

A consultant is a person who borrows your watch, tells you what time it is, pockets the watch, and sends you a bill for it.