MN Impact: Research and Extension Work on Snow Fences Helps Increase Road Safety
Researchers and Extension specialists will provide information and outreach that will lead to safer roads in Minnesota. (Reported as the percent reduction in accident injury severity in areas where recommended techniques are used).
Driving on rural roads in the wintertime is dangerous. According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, 13,650 car accidents resulted from snowy or icy conditions in 2017 alone. As we adjust to changes in our climate, research suggests extreme weather episodes will increase throughout the state leading to increased snowfall, record-breaking high and low temperatures and extreme wind events.
What has been done
In the late 1990s, U of M researchers led by Mark Seeley setout out to explore the effectiveness of "living snow fences" to help block snowdrift, which can cause icy roads and near whiteout conditions on highways and freeways in rural Minnesota. Strategies include planting natural shrubs and grasses, piles of hay bales, structural fences and leaving cornrows standing.
Through a partnership with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), University researchers and Extension specialists pinpointed 3,700 sites statewide in need of added snow protection measures. Extension Educators have conducted snow fence workshops for MnDOT staff and Extension specialists worked with MnDOT to develop a payment program for farmers willing to relinquish part of their farmable land to make way for a snow fence. The program includes two options: 1) a short-term agreement to grow rows of corn on their property 100 to 200 feet away from sides of roads; or, 2) a 10 to a 15-year agreement where they commit to planting and maintaining woody vegetation.
Between 2015 and 2016, farmer compensation for taking part in the program averaged $4,800 (between $1000 and $2000 per acre). But for MnDOT, the cost is well worth it since living snow fences can save thousands of dollars by limiting the need for continuous road maintenance and snow removal.
There is also a social element as where they have been successfully implemented; snow fences have proven extremely effective with MnDOT recently reporting strips of highway flanked by standing cornrows saw a 40 percent reduction in accident injury severity. During the extreme winter of 2018/2019, MnDOT reported 70 miles of newly installed living snow fences along state and federal highways providing a "night and day" difference in western Minnesota.