How Some Places are Beeting the Snow

If you’re living in the northeastern United States right now, you’re suffering through a sustained cold blast with more than a little bit of snow mixed in. It’s unpleasant, take my word for it — and it’s making a mess of the roads and cars. It’s not the cold nor the snow itself, but the salt. Municipalities regularly dump a lot of salt on the roads, as salt lowers the freezing point of the water, making it less likely for roads to turn into ice slicks.

But there are major downsides to using salt. First, it can corrode the cars whose passengers it is aiming to keep safe. And even if you stay off the road, you can be harmed. As Smithsonian explains, the salt will wash away eventually, and can ultimately end up polluting rivers, streams, and the like.

So towns are looking for new solutions — ones which protect cars and the environment alike. One of the more commonly-applied new ideas? It stars an unlikely hero: the sugar beet. It turns out, they’re good at fighting ice.

It’s simple, really: take some beet juice, mix it with brine (basically salt water), and spray it on the roads. As early as 2012, some towns have been using this mixture as their de-icer of choice. It works just like salt, but better; as Nat Geo explains: “the sugar in the solution lowers the freezing point of the ice, which means when sugar is added, salt will melt ice at a cooler temperature than its typical 15°F limit” — a limit which is often exceeded during extreme cold spells.

And there’s more. Beet juice is pretty sticky, and while that’s not something you want on your clothes, it is something you want on your snowy roads. This advantage is particularly useful because the beet juice/brine mixture can be applied to roads before it snows, as the gooey beet juice helps the salt adhere to the road. As a result, it also lasts longer than salt alone — even though there’s less salt used overall.

There are downsides to the beet juice concoction — the big one being the cost. Even though the beet juice is often a byproduct of commercial beet production, it’s about five times more expensive than salt alone. But in many cases, it’s worth the additional investment, as it often requires fewer applications, making up for most if not all of the difference.

So if you’re in a snowy area and while driving, come across a patch of brown-ish, oily-looking goo with large salt chunks in there, don’t be afraid to drive through it — it’s probably beet juice. (Probably.)

Bonus fact: In Wisconsin, towns will often use cheese brine, a waste product of the cheesemaking process, instead of salt as their de-icer of choice. (The science is, basically, the same.) As NPR reported, unlike beet juice, it doesn’t cost a lot — in fact, the state gets it for free, because the supplier “doesn’t have to pay to have the brine removed as a waste product.” On the other hand, any cars following the de-icing truck have to deal with the odor. Really. As one Wisconsin state transportation official told TIME, “I don’t know what it smells like, but I’d rather not get into that.”

From the Archives: Flame On!: The creative (and probably) dangerous way Washington, D.C., cleared away the snow in anticipation of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.