Salting the Earth

Posted: January 13, 2012 in Education, Environment, History

Chicago just had its first seasonal snowfall of any significance, and the first reaction of residents, businesses, and IDOT is to haul out their snow blowers, snowplows, and salt broadcasters. Considering how modest the snowfall was, only 4.5 to 6.5 inches in most areas (but up to 7 or 8 inches in a few), it was almost hysterical overkill. Perhaps the memory of last year’s blizzard, dubbed Snowmageddon or Snowpocalypse, was to blame. No matter. What matters is that with each new snowfall and each winter, more and more salt is scattered onto sidewalks and roadways. The Chicago Loop in particular becomes several square miles of salt-encrusted concrete and pavement lest anyone slip, fall down, go boom, and litigate. I’m not especially concerned over my ruined shoes or deteriorating sidewalks and roadways. They’re impermanent anyway. Rather, my concern is that over a period of years, we’re literally salting the earth — something far more permanent. (The IDOT link above reports that “Last year, the agency spent $84.6 million on snow removal and spread 562,220 tons of salt.” That may sound like pride but should read as horror.)

Sowing with salt was a practice in ancient warfare meant to destroy the soils of a conquered city or country to make it impossible for the conquered to grow food — a particularly nasty way of adding insult to injury. In the modern world, it’s occurring with alarming regularity due to a variety of factors. Plenty of information is out there to be had about salinization (see for example here, here, and here, the last of which appears to be pretty extensive), but do we learn from our mistakes and make the necessary adjustments? Don’t bother responding to that question; everyone already knows the answer. The numbers of ways we continue to insult our injured planet just keep mounting.

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