By Judson Jones and Jennifer Gray, CNN
This week, another winter storm is streaking across the northern Plains and the Midwest, dropping a few inches of snow. And it’s so cold outside, iguanas are falling out of trees.
But this won’t stop Plowy McPlowface, one of Minnesota’s famed snowplows. Through frosted windows and low visibility, these trucks plow on. Here’s what it is like to drive in such harsh conditions.
Plowing is more than cute names
“Your visibility is low, it’s snowing, freezing, your windshield wipers are clacking along trying to keep the windshield clean.”
Dan Pendergast is one of the drivers of the 800 snowplows in Minnesota. And in the Twin Cities where he drives, they can see as much as 51 inches of snow in a single season.
“Here in Minnesota, things can happen so fast. It can switch from rain to snow to ice very quickly and it’s hazardous,” says Pendergast.
In Minnesota, snowplows are given names and snowplow drivers are local celebrities. Plowy McPlowface, Darth Blader and F. Salt Fitzgerald, just to name a few.
“We thought last year with everyone at home, it would be something fun to do, to have a naming contest, and oh my goodness did it take off,” says Anne Meyer, with Minnesota Department of Transportation. The idea came from Scotland, which has more than 50 plows named. In fact, voting is taking place now for the next round of plows to be named in Minnesota, if you want to get in on the fun.
Some of the names you can vote on this year include “CTRL Salt Delete,” “Edward Blizzardhands” and “Betty Whiteout,” after the legendary actress who passed away on New Year’s Eve.
“It gives it more personality and makes it more human,” says Meyer. “People take more caution knowing we have folks inside these plows. So, we hoped it would help remind people we are doing a job out there and help protect our men and women who are behind the wheel.”
Snowplow drivers, like Pendergast and the other 1,600 plow drivers across Minnesota, have a dangerous job on the snowy highways of Minnesota. Working 12-hour shifts, the men and women run 80,000-pound trucks that simultaneously plow the streets and lay down salt and chemicals to keep the roads from becoming an icy mess.
“The inside of our trucks have three computer screens, four joysticks, and multiple buttons to push to make things happen,” says Pendergast. “So, there’s a lot of things happening on the road and a lot of things happening inside the cab.”
He says getting the solution on the streets in the tiny window of opportunity between when the rain ends, and the snow begins is a delicate dance they train for.
They stage on the side of the highways and as soon as they see the weather switching over to winter precipitation, they go, in what they call a team plow.
“We put six or seven trucks in a row, and we push all the snow simultaneously, from the left to right, and we use our computer systems in the truck which are pretty elaborate. That tells us how much salt we put down,” says Pendergast.
Pendergast says when he sees cities in the south like Atlanta’s snowmageddon in 2014 and most recently, the ice catastrophe in Virginia, that stranded motorists in their cars for 24 hours, he’s not surprised.
“When it starts to snow, you will get that initial snow to melt on the road and you are going to have traffic rolling over the road and more snow, the snow starts compacting and bonding to the road. You’re not going to get it off,” says Pendergast. “There’s not a heck of a lot you can do because you’re not going to be able to get the chemicals down and I’m guessing those areas don’t have the equipment we have here, like the icebreakers and really good cutting-edge equipment. We have 800 plows in the state, 200 in the metro area, Atlanta and Virginia are probably going to have 40 or less.”
He also mentioned how one accident with a tractor-trailer can back up traffic for hours, since you won’t be able to get any maintenance vehicles on the road because of the backup. It’s a domino effect of unfortunate events in cities that typically don’t see as much snow have a hard time avoiding.
“For these cities that don’t have the equipment, you get a freak snowstorm or ice storm, it is what it is, you can’t place blame on the people for the situation that happens because you had snow or rain and you don’t have the equipment. You’re not going to be able to keep up,” says Pendergast.
In Minnesota, they have regular experience dealing with the intricacies of plowing roads. The famed snowplows and their operators pay little attention to the celebrity status they have been given and focus on the snowy job at hand.
“Mostly people honk or give a thumbs up,” says Meyer. “Our fear is that we don’t want people to get in the way. We aren’t trying to make it a celebrity status, because Plowy McPlowface has a job to do, and we want to make sure they can get the job done.”
If you want to see these famous snowplows in action, you can watch their dashcam feeds here.
It’s so cold that…
Minnesota, which is used to the snow and cold, could experience the coldest night of the season this week.
Lows in some areas Tuesday night could drop to 30 degrees below zero, and over the next few days, the wind chill across this region will feel even colder than the forecast temperature.
In fact, it has been so cold in the Midwest this past week, Lake Michigan is producing some fantastic pancake ice, but it isn’t the latest breakfast trend.
See more images and how these ice formations occur.
And now that you are craving pancakes, let me point you towards how to safely exercise in the cold.
Did I mention ‘falling iguanas’?
It was a real threat in Miami on Monday morning morning as the temperature dipped below 50 degrees.
“Iguanas begin to get sluggish or lethargic once the temperature drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but once the temperature drops below 45 degrees all the iguanas go into a dormant or cold-stunned state,” our self-proclaimed resident frozen iguana expert and CNN meteorologist Allison Chinchar explained. “They appear to be dead, but they are not. They remain breathing with critical body functions still operating.”
It is their body’s way of protecting them until the temperature warms back up above 50 degrees, which for today, should be by late morning in most areas of central and southern Florida.
They can be slightly dangerous to humans, says Chinchar.
“Iguanas often sleep in trees, so when their bodies go dormant, they appear to fall from the sky onto streets, cars, pools, or even people walking around. And since iguanas are large — adult males can reach 5 feet in length and weigh up to 20 pounds — this can be dangerous if one lands on top of you.”
You can read more from Chinchar on past frozen iguana sightings here.
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