Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Austin's ice and snow; distributed expertise

So the city of Austin has been shut down since Monday (MLK Day) due to icy conditions. How icy? Oh, not terribly:

This light dusting of snow -- the first I've seen in my five years in Austin -- doesn't look like a big deal, does it? Certainly it's nothing compared to what I saw in my five years in Iowa, where this level of snow and ice would be trivial. But everyone's staying indoors: schools and businesses are closed.

That's not because Texans lack fortitude. Before moving to Iowa, I would have simply agreed that Texans don't know how to drive in icy conditions, since we don't get them that often. That's true, but it's much less of a factor than you may think. The big difference between, say, Austin and Ames is that Ames has had to invest in the infrastructure for dealing with these driving conditions: snowplows, de-icers, etc. When we lived in Iowa, the moment flakes started hitting the ground, a road crew was out there. Due in large part to them, I found myself quickly becoming an "Iowa driver," which is to say that the winter driving expertise I had always attributed to Northern drivers had to do more with this infrastructure than with the individual driver.

But for Austin, where we go years without even a light dusting like this one, it doesn't make sense to invest in that sort of infrastructure. The price we pay is that every once in a while the city gets shut down.

To make it worse, since the temperature is so close to the freezing point, the ice keeps melting, refreezing, melting, and refreezing. It just gets slicker and slicker. In Iowa, it just dropped way below freezing in October and didn't come back up until April.

To give you an idea of how big this shift is, we were walking around in shorts last week and the plants thought it was spring:

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