Biological & Environmental Engineering
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Road salt impacts on the environment

During the winter in upstate New York and in many other regions, salt is commonly used as a de-icer on roads, parking lots, and sidewalks. There is mounting concern that application of salt over the last few decades is leading to increasing salinity of freshwater systems. This could impact biota living in these systems as well as our drinking water supplies. The Soil & Water Lab has several research projects ongoing to understand various aspects of how road salt is transported through soils and making its way into nearby groundwater, streams, and lakes.

Sidewalk salt
Starting in early 2013, undergraduate Shane DeGaetano has lead a project to measure how much salt is coming out of campus stormwater outfalls into nearby Cascadilla Creek. Undergraduates Sarah Nadeau, Erin Makarsky and Erin Cantrell are also assisting with this research. This project, including some preliminary findings, are highlighted in this short video. Shane is also taking water samples along Cascadilla Creek to see how salt concentrations change with the density of roads.

PhD student Lauren McPhillips is carrying out research in stormwater detention basins on Cornell's campus. These basins receive runoff from nearby parking lots, which can include substantial salt in winter and early spring. Lauren has been tracking how fast salt washes through soils in these basins, as well as investigating how soil salinity impacts microbial processes occurring in these basins.

Research in action

Shane checking outfall

Erin & Sarah sampling stormwater

Studying salt impacts on soil processes

Past research by former PhD student Steve Shaw investigated long-term trends in chloride in Fall Creek in central New York. His work (check out the paper here) found that road salt had a residence time of ~50 years in the watershed, meaning that impacts of road salt applications now could be felt for decades to come.

Overall, we hope that all of this research will help us understand how road salt is impacting our environment, particularly our water resources. With this information, we can motivate better management strategies to reduce adverse impacts.

Funding: Recent work has been funded by the NYS Water Resources Institute and the Cornell Engineering Learning Initiatives Undergraduate Research Grant Program

If you have any questions about this project, please contact Lauren McPhillips.

Last updated March 2015