Google The Unplanned Homeschooler: How Wyoming engineers make snow plow itself

Friday, June 10, 2016

How Wyoming engineers make snow plow itself

As we drove across the vastness of Wyoming on Interstate 80 last week, my kids and I were struck by the beauty of the landscape, the abundance of antelope and other wildlife, and most of all, the hundreds of miles of fences.

After driving through what seemed like hundreds of miles of giant windmills in Kansas and Colorado a couple of weeks before, we first thought that the fences might be banks of solar panels, similarly harnessing renewable energy resources. But before long, it became clear that the fences were simply made of wood, and not connected in any way that would keep animals in or out, even though cattle seemed to enjoy lying in their shade.

What were they? Why were they there?

As we climbed higher in altitude, we began to notice snow still melting between fences in a few places, even though it was early June. The snow had already melted away elsewhere, so I was pretty sure that the fences had something to do with controlling the formation of drifts, although I wasn't entirely sure how they worked.

My kids were alternately fascinated and then bored by the fences as we continued our trek eastward on I-80 toward Cheyenne. I continued to be amazed by them, and vowed to look them up when I got home. It took a few days, but I did get around to it.

The snow fences are indeed amazing. As it turned out, they were instrumental in making Interstate 80 usable again after it opened in 1970 only to close shortly thereafter due to massive accumulations of snow. The wind driven snow made it impossible to drive on the new highway, even with plows working overtime to clear it. But by harnessing the principals of aerodynamics, engineers and builders using the research of Dr. Ron Tabler, a pioneer in the study of wind and snow, figured out how to essentially make the snow plow itself.

It all came down to air flow and turbulence. Undisturbed, straight winds were able to carry a lot of snow and deposit it all over. But winds that passed through obstacles, such as trees, standing corn rows or those ubiquitous Wyoming snow fences tended to drop much of their load. Drifts formed right behind the fences, and if those fences were placed just far enough from the highway, the road would stay relatively clear.

How about that? Science and history all along the side of the Wyoming highway in the form of fences we don't tend to see in northeastern Oklahoma. That was my kind of learning adventure!

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