Media Releases

The dark side of spring? Pollution in our melting snow

March 28, 2011

TORONTO, ON – With birds chirp­ing and tem­per­a­tures warm­ing , spring is final­ly in the air. But for Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough (UTSC) envi­ron­men­tal chemist Torsten Mey­er, spring­time has a dark side.

“Dur­ing the win­ter months, con­t­a­m­i­nants accu­mu­late in the snow,” says Mey­er, an expert on snow-bound organ­ic con­t­a­m­i­nants and a post-doc­tor­al fel­low at UTSC. “When the snow melts, these chem­i­cals are released into the envi­ron­ment at high con­cen­tra­tions.”

In a spe­cial­ly designed, tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled lab­o­ra­to­ry at UTSC—which includes a home­made snow-gun and a chem­i­cal pump—Meyer cre­ates large baths of fresh snow already taint­ed with organ­ic con­t­a­m­i­nants . This one-of-a-kind set-up enables the researcher to slow­ly melt his “dirty” snow, col­lect the melt-water and track which chem­i­cals emerge from the snow­pack and when.
Meyer’s research reveals a wor­ry­ing sur­prise. “One of the main find­ings is that there is a peak con­t­a­m­i­nant flush at the very begin­ning of the melt,” he says. With the advent of spring, accord­ing to Mey­er, comes a del­uge of pol­lu­tion.

By the time snow has turned black with muck and grime, many harm­ful  chem­i­cals — includ­ing those from pes­ti­cides, car exhaust, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions wiring insu­la­tion, water repel­lent cloth­ing, paints or coat­ings — may have already seeped out of the snow and into the sur­round­ing ground water or sur­face water.

Although Mey­er views his work as fun­da­men­tal research, his find­ings have obvi­ous real-world impli­ca­tions, such as how munic­i­pal­i­ties choose their snow dump sites. Accord­ing to Mey­er, cities and towns should be very care­ful to select well-con­tained sites to pro­tect against that ear­ly flush of pol­lu­tants.

Meyer’s research is unique because pre­vi­ous stud­ies on snowmelt con­t­a­m­i­nants have all used either nat­ur­al snow or very low vol­umes of arti­fi­cial­ly pro­duced snow.  He is also one of only a hand­ful of researchers in the world who study snow and organ­ic con­t­a­m­i­nants.

“Get­ting quan­ti­ta­tive infor­ma­tion on the flush of con­t­a­m­i­nants from a melt­ing snow­pack is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant,” says Pro­fes­sor Frank Wania, head of Meyer’s research clus­ter at UTSC. “The melt often coin­cides with time peri­ods when many aquat­ic organ­isms are at a vul­ner­a­ble stage of their life cycle.”



For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Torsten Mey­er
Post-doc­tor­al fel­low
Depart­ment of Phys­i­cal and Envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough

Karen Ho
Media and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Assis­tant
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough