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Bringing out the big guns: MnDOT uses new 'icebreaker' to clear compacted snow

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Erica Dischino / Tribune A truck mounted with the “icebreaker” moves through the slush and compacted snow Tuesday afternoon on U.S. Highway 12 west of Willmar. Commonly used in Alaska, Minnesota purchased three icebreakers that are shared by Minnesota Department of Transportation districts. 2 / 6
Erica Dischino / Tribune A Minnesota Department of Transportation truck clears slush and compacted snow Tuesday afternoon on U.S. Highway 12 west of Willmar. MnDOT expected highway cleanup from Monday's storm to continue into today. 3 / 6
Erica Dischino / Tribune A Minnesota Department of Transportation truck clears slush and compacted snow Tuesday afternoon on U.S. Highway 12 west of Willmar. MnDOT expected highway cleanup from Monday's storm to continue into today. 4 / 6
Erica Dischino / Tribune A Minnesota Department of Transportation truck clears slush and compacted snow Tuesday afternoon on U.S. Highway 12 west of Willmar. MnDOT expected highway cleanup from Monday's storm to continue into today. 5 / 6
Erica Dischino / Tribune This stretch of U.S. Highway 12 West is clear of the worst of the ice Tuesday afternoon after “icebreakers” were used in the Willmar area. The state has three icebreakers – a roller with steel knobs that punch holes in the ice and compacted snow. 6 / 6

WILLMAR — Crews were busy Tuesday cleaning up roads after heavy, wet snow was dumped on the region Monday.

Snowfall amounts were generally in the 4- to 8-inch range in west central Minnesota.

According to the National Weather Service, Willmar had 8.6 inches of snow.

Many schools closed for a second day, which may have helped keep the number of traffic accidents in check.

State, county and municipal departments kept snowplows going all day in an effort to combat stretches of slippery, compacted snow and ice.

The conditions were so challenging in some areas that the Minnesota Department of Transportation pulled out a new tool in its arsenal to help break up thick layers of compacted snow in the Willmar area.

Called the "icebreaker," the attachment is placed on the front end of a snowplow, where the plow would normally go.

Describing it as a set of drums with a "thousand fingers," the icebreaker is a roller with carbide-tipped steel knobs, said Tim McCoy, maintenance supervisor at the MnDOT District 8 office in Willmar.

The fingers on the rolling drum punch holes in the compacted snow and ice.

That not only chops up ice, but the steel knobs create holes for de-icing chemicals, which reduces the amount of chemicals needed and increases the speed of getting roads cleared, McCoy said.

Commonly used in Alaska, Minnesota purchased three of these icebreakers, according to MnDOT. They are shared by districts and used sparingly when there's a need.

Compacted snow must be at least 1 inch thick for icebreakers to be used in order not to damage road surfaces.

McCoy said he expected plows to be out until very late Tuesday night, and likely Wednesday morning, to keep cleaning roads, which were still filling in as winds continued to blow snow Tuesday.

There was plenty of snow to blow around.

"We knew it was going to be a storm that was going to dump a lot of snow quickly," said Jacob Beitlich, a forecaster with the National Weather Service. "It was going to be fast and furious and have the ability to produce heavy snow."

Other snowfall amounts in the area include:

• Montevideo — 8.1 inches

• Madison — 8 inches

• Spicer — 7 inches

• Bird Island — 6.4 inches

• Lake Lillian — 5 inches

• Granite Falls — 4 inches

The National Weather Service map indicated just 2 inches of snow fell in New London, but Beitlich questioned that total, especially since Spicer to the south had 7 inches and Cold Spring to the north had 9.3 inches.

Beitlich said the next seven to 10 days should be storm-free, but said the rest of the month may have a "pretty active" weather pattern that could be a "breeding ground" for another big storm.

"There's a lot of winter left, unfortunately," he said.

It was a different story last year.

Beitlich said on March 6, 2017, the temperature was about 60 in Willmar and the state recorded its earliest tornados, with reports in Freeborn and Sherburne counties.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750
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