BELLEVUE - On his laptop computer in his Bellevue office, Jim McBride can watch snow plow blades go up and down. He oversees trucks and road maintenance crews for the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Area 5.
Technology on board the trucks can also transmit air and road temperatures, and he can see their location using the Global Positioning System, exactly where his plows and other vehicles are as yellow icons on a digital map.
McBride’s a Maintenance Superintendent now with responsibility for much of King County. He started out working on plow trucks back in the 1970s, when having this kind of technology was just a dream.
“There are so many micro-climates around here,” said McBride.
Micro-climates explain why a certain section of road tend to freeze more than others. Our rough terrain makes for low spots that collect cold air, divert winds in certain directions and cause it to rain more in one spot, and less in another.
You’ve probably seen small weather stations along the highway - a lot of them along I-90. They’re called Road Weather Information Stations - RWIS. They have anemometers to measure wind, thermometers measuring air temperature and even sensors embedded in the road to measure the temperature of the road surface.
Some so-called “hockey pucks” can even tell if that part of the road has been treated with salt or other ice melting chemicals. McBride says they’re placed in known trouble spots where micro-climates create problems.
“It can give you ice warnings and snow warnings as well,” he said.
Highways are going increasingly high tech. That kind of weather information can help McBride direct the snow fight where it’s needed. Whether that’s dispatching plows to trouble spots, or getting deicer on a trouble spot early.
This year Seattle’s Department of Transportation or SDOT joined the high tech road ranks, adding eight surface temperature sensors to bridges and other known trouble spots around the city. The sensors were installed during the heat of July, in preparation for the winter we’re dealing with now.