2012/02/06 1 Comment
By: Kathy Ashby
The average person is familiar with snowmobiles that zoom over freshwater lakes during the winter, emitting a high-ranking form of noise pollution as well as air pollution that we can see and smell. Air-borne pollution from snow machines has another environmental factor, more alarming, because it is unseen and unknown to the general public. A form of pollution, direct pollution into fresh water, can be caused by the emission of the unburned fuel from motors in snowmobiles, which goes directly into the water. Much of the fuel especially from older two-stroke models is left unburned and emitted out the tail pipe. The airborne pollutants become part of the snowpack. This has further consequences for fresh water lakes during the spring thaw.
Due to the increase in snowmobile activity in the last decades, approximately 100,000 family members, the environment has been heavily compromised. What the Ontario Federation of Snowmobiles’ promotional material doesn’t report but the Environmental Protection Agency does is that snowmobiles emit a number of pollutants, including aldehydes, 1, 3-butadiene, benzene, toluene and xylene and other polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
These pollutants can be carcinogenic and negatively affect the nervous system. According to estimates from the Native Forest Organization about 20 tons of hydrocarbons and 54 tons of Carbon Monoxide may be emitted on an average day during a peak weekend (700 snowmobiles) One hour on a typical snowmobile produces more pollution than driving a modern car for a year. Based on the poor design of the 2-stroke motor and its fuel-burning inefficiency, it is estimated that 25-40 percent of the gasoline and oil are dumped directly out the tail pipe.
Perhaps the drivers of these machines don’t realize the ramifications this has for the environment. There have been few studies, notably those done in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in recent years after the 2004-2005 Winter Season. The air had at one point had become so toxic to park gate attendants that they insisted on gas masks as part of staff uniform requirements.
More recently there has been an interesting study conducted by Reimann, S, R Kallenborn and N Schmidbauer in the Arctic and published by Environmental Health News, 2009. Peak levels of aromatic hydrocarbons in Longyearbyen (Svalbard) a remote community, are so high during snowmobile season that they are close to levels of the same pollutants in Zurich, Switzerland – a major city with close to 400,000 people. “As there are only 540 snowmobiles with 2-stroke engines registered in Longyearbyen, it is clear that a small number of snowmobiles can have a big impact on the amount of airborne pollutants.” The snowmobile industry has yet to appreciate the disaster this ‘dump’ of toxic waste creates annually.
This is cause for alarm, more importantly in Muskoka due to our vast geographical expanse of fresh water ecosystems. There is a potential for these pollutants to affect nearby surface waters during snowmelt and spring runoff. Scientists like Peter Landrum, of the Great Lakes Research laboratory, believe that fuel deposited by snowmobiles over the winter months become locked into the snowpack. This is especially true on the temporary man-made lake trails. The toxic affects of the accumulated pollutants magnify during the first few days of spring when they are released during snowmelt. There is a condition called phototoxicity, where tiny organisms absorb chemicals, from the ejected unburned fuel, making them sensitive to light. Simple daylight can easily kill the organisms. This annual disaster, that has gone unchecked for decades, during the time of spawning of most aquatic life which feed on these organisms, can be potentially felt all the way up the food chain.
To date Canada, one of the leading manufacturers of snowmobiles, has yet to ban two-stroke engines. Due to the alleged ‘big-spending’ impact these machines bring to tourism, the industry has succeeded in diverting meaningful discussion on the subject. Granted there are economic benefits but this reminds us about the arguments the tobacco industry used to baffle the public for 20-odd years before they became aware of the unhealthy side of smoking.
On a positive note, as a result of lobbying, environmentalists have put pressure on all four major manufacturers of the snowmobile industry to make machines with four-stroke engines. They have also pushed for machines that have cleaner options such as installation of proper jets that can be adjusted at different altitudes to improve engine performance. Organizations such as the Montana Department of Environmental Quality have a number of suggestions like adjusting the snowmobiles for local conditions, the use of oxygenated fuels and the use of low emission lube oils. Low impact; biodegradable lubricant gasohol can be used instead of petroleum-based products for all motorized recreational vehicles especially snowmobiles. We can create policies to reduce our carbon footprint as well as our carbon snowprint. It’s time to alleviate this form of water pollution in our very own backyards.