Planning for winter: a year-round job

Spring is nearly here, so the chance for big snowstorms are dwindling. However, for some City of Duluth staff, the whole year is used to strategize, make sense of data, and prepare for the upcoming snow falls and icy roads. 

Geoff Vukelich, Street Maintenance Operations Coordinator for the City of Duluth, helps oversee the application of salt and sand to city roads during the winter months. Geoff’s work to plan for keeping streets safe in the winter prioritizes both the safety of citizens and the health of Lake Superior. Geoff starts to think about snow removal strategies long before the storms; his mind is on winter maintenance from the very beginning of street improvement projects and upgrades. 


One reason snow and ice removal in Duluth can be challenging is because different methods of street maintenance are needed throughout the 27-mile long city. More intense application techniques and rates are needed in steeper parts of the City, mainly in the downtown area, because 1/5 of Duluth roads have a grade of 3% or steeper. 

Working in Street Maintenance, Geoff knows that his work intertwines with the Lake and the environment around him. He knows that proper training is important to guarantee salt and sand application is done correctly and unnecessary waste of material is avoided. Different types of salt application methods can be safer for both people and the environment; one of the biggest opportunities is to switch from granular materials to liquid. Liquid application can deliver better results for ice removal, and it can be better directed and isolated to certain roadways and icy spots. Materials like salt brine also provide faster activation and less bounce and scatter of the material, meaning less material contaminating stormwater, boulevards, or into local creeks and parks. There is a large cost to invest in the equipment to make this possible, however once acquired, less staff time and fewer applications would be needed as liquid application can be more effective. Salt brine is just one example of how investment in new equipment and processes can save time, resources, and environmental damage in the long run. 

            Geoff is an admitted “big data nerd,” and he enjoys seeing the bigger picture in numbers and making sense of it. Operational data can inform future investments and decisions, so he is collecting and analyzing it to improve operations and save time and money. 

Geoff’s work also includes the challenges that climate change brings. Minnesota State Climatologist data shows that Duluth winters are warmer, and with that comes more freezing rain and ice events, sometimes on top of snow, or mixed with snow too. How the City can adapt their street operations and be prepared for these events is another aspect of Geoff’s work.

When asked how residents can help the City’s efforts to be more effective in the winter, Geoff shared that, whenever possible, staying home during the worst of a snowstorm increases safety and helps the plows clear the streets at a faster rate. Geoff also shares that some challenges come from misunderstandings about the plow schedule or longer weather events that postpone snow removal teams from clearing the streets. He recommends that an easy way to be sustainable in the winter time is to simply stay home, when it is possible. If you do have to travel during a storm, slow down, wear winter gear for walking on icy/snowy sidewalks, and make sure your vehicle is equipped with good tires to keep you safe on a snowy commute. 


Written by communications intern Annika Fraizer, Fall 2020