As we deal with two winters in the U.S.—warm and dry out west, cold and snowy in the Northeast—exasperated Californians watched as Boston got nearly 100 inches of snow in a month. The storms brought up a common question among parched westerners: what would it take to ship Boston's snow to California?
Every time I mention snow on the East Coast or the drought on the West Coast, at least one person asks how many trucks, people, and gallons of gas would be required to truck snow from Boston to California in order to replenish reservoirs and help alleviate the effects of the region's devastating drought. The answer is "more than you can imagine."
The logistics of transporting that much water from Boston to somewhere in California would be a nightmare. Let's do the math.
According to never-wrong Wikipedia, there are 48.42 square miles of land within Boston's city limits. For reference, that's a little more than twice the size of Manhattan and about 25% smaller than Washington D.C. Boston's Logan Airport is regarded as the city's official weather station, and observers at the airport have recorded 97 inches of snow between January 1 and today.
Snowfall totals can change dramatically over a short distance, so not everyone in Boston saw 97 inches of snow from those storms. Some people saw a few more inches, some people saw a little less. The exact snow totals are further complicated by compaction and melting. Deep snow starts to compact after a few hours, and a three-foot storm will look more like two feet after a day or two.
Now, obviously, we're not going to refrigerate the snow and truck it to California like winter-bearing wizards. It's not the snow they want, it's the water, and figuring out how much water would result from melting a parcel of snow is a challenge. Some snow is very heavy and wet, while other storms produce that dry, powdery snow that blows around easily.
According to an analysis by the NOHRSC on February 17—shortly after the final major snowstorm—the snow water equivalent (amount of water we'd have you melted a column of snow) for the snow pack in Boston was between six and eight inches—more to the south. For the sake of this post and simplicity, we'll say that the snow pack on land in Boston is equivalent to seven inches of water.
One inch of rain over one square mile produces 17,380,000 gallons of water, according to the USGS. Using that formula, seven inches of rain over one square mile would produce 121,660,000 gallons of water. If we multiply that by the 48.42 square miles of land in Boston, the seven inches of snow water equivalent in the city is roughly equal to 5,890,777,200 gallons of water. Using the old water cliché, that would fill about 8,925 Olympic-size swimming pools. That's a lot of floating bandaids.
Assuming that scraping up every bit of snow within city limits (from the ground, buildings, trees, cars, etc.) is no challenge, how are we going to get nearly six billion gallons of water from Boston to some city in California? It would be impractical to build a pipeline in time to alleviate the drought—hell, the pattern would probably switch and it'll start raining again before they even debate how to pay for the thing. We'll stick to the sentiment at the heart of the question: red-blooded Americans shoveling snow into a truck and driving it out there. Hell yeah.
The most logical choice for driving that much water out west would be to use tanker trucks. The largest tanker trucks in the United States can carry 11,600 gallons of liquid, according to never-wrong Wikipedia. Assuming supply is no issue, it would take 507,826 tanker trucks to transport every drop of melted snow out of Boston city limits.
Fuel is an even bigger challenge because we don't know where we're taking the water. California is a big state, and the entire state is in some form of drought. No matter where you go in California, however, the trip would be about 3,100 miles from Boston, give or take a few. That's a long drive, so it would take at least 1,015,652 drivers to complete the trip (assuming two per cab). That's just drivers, not including all of the people it would take to gather and melt the snow, load it into the trucks, and unload it at its destination.
Trucks that large typically get terrible gas mileage event without factoring in variables like weather or terrain, so for simplicity, we'll say that these water-carrying tankers would get five miles per gallon. Assuming an even 3,100-mile trip from Boston to somewhere in California, each truck would consume 620 gallons of gas on the trip, or about 314,852,120 total gallons of diesel for the one-way trip from Boston to California.
The numbers are staggering and impractical. The scary thing is that it wouldn't even come close to eliminating the drought conditions in many areas. In December, NASA computed that it would require 11,000,000,000,000 (eleven trillion) gallons of water to completely eradicate California's drought.
Assuming that figure is still anywhere close to accurate (it's probably higher now), the amount of snow in Boston just after the conga line of blizzards would only provide 0.0535% of the amount of water California needs to come out of its drought. Even if we were able to scrape up every bit of snow from Boston and ship it across the country, the other 99.9465% of the water California needs would have to come from the sky.
[Image: AP | Corrected the first sentence of the ninth paragraph to add three words I accidentally left out. Oops.]