Fermilab masters record-breaking cold

Building managers and the 14-person Roads and Grounds crew ensured that Fermilab was open for business this week. The wind chill reached minus 51 degrees Fahrenheit. Photo: Reidar Hahn

The Fermilab meteorological station registered the laboratory’s lowest wind chill on record this week. On Monday, Jan. 6, at 8:50 a.m., the wind chill dropped to minus 51 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 46 degrees Celsius. The weather station began tracking wind chill in 2003.

In the below-zero cold, Dave Shemanske’s Roads and Grounds crew worked in shifts as long as 24 hours to clear the roads and parking lots for Fermilab workers and residents.

“The fact that we had the laboratory open for business Monday shows the dedication of the crew and the individual building managers,” Shemanske said.

During severe weather events, the 14-person crew often begins driving dump trucks, loaders and pick-ups as early as 2 a.m. to ensure the roads are safe for morning commuters.

“The work for us really began last week,” Shemanske said, referring to the snowstorm that hit the area at the beginning of the year. “Many of my guys gave up their New Year’s plans to clear roads, parking lots and sidewalks. We take a great deal of pride in the site.”

Fermilab’s snowfall total for this winter is already over 30 inches. At extremely low temperatures, such as those seen this past week when the thermometer showed minus 17.5 F (minus 27.5 C), salt alone is not effective. In addition to plowing, the roads and grounds crew applies a mixture of beet-juice-covered salt and sand to lower the melting point and add traction to the about 36 miles of roads at Fermilab.

The cold weather created a few problems. Kent Collins, acting head of FESS, says there were “no catastrophes,” but a furnace went out at a residence and a couple of sanitary pumps failed. Some cars slid off the road, but no injuries occurred.

“The crew members, building managers and other employees were all working in the bitter cold to identify and solve problems,” Collins said. “FESS would not be able to manage without their assistance, and it really makes a difference.”

Amanda Solliday