A stormwater popsicle

What the Bayside Glacier can teach us about Portland’s sewage problem
By CHRISTIAN McNEIL  |  April 9, 2008
SIGHTING  THE TOP: Summit a pile of frozen pollution.

Climb the glacier
Before the
Bayside glacier melts away for one more season — and possibly its last — it’s worth a visit.

You can climb the glacier yourself, although at your own risk (it is icy). As much garbage as there is in the glacier, for now it’s still mostly snow, and walking on top of it is no more unsanitary than walking along the curb of the average city street.

The easiest route of ascent begins from the corner of Chestnut and Somerset streets, following the tread tracks of the bulldozer that shapes the glacier after every storm. If you climb on a warm day, the trickiest part will be leaping from the street onto the ice without getting your shoes lost in the thick mud at the glacier’s melting edge. From there, it’s a gradual, half-block ascent to the summit.

From the top, you can look down the steep western slope and study the geological layers: near the bottom third is a leaf-strewn layer, a reminder of how the first snowstorms struck before street-cleaning crews had a chance to sweep up the autumn’s fallen leaves. Just above that is a small ridge — the January thaw, when the glacier briefly retreated. Above that are two or three additional layers, interspersed with smaller ridges associated with other rain storms and warm spells.

And on the surface of the glacier is an impressive, and growing, layer of grime, the stuff that we walk though on our city streets and inhale into our lungs (albeit in smaller doses) every day.

You’ve probably seen the Bayside Glacier: it’s that pile of dirty snow and ice that rises each winter to rival the redeveloping neighborhood’s new office buildings in bulk and height. Its summit peeks over the shorter warehouses and retail strips surrounding it, and is visible from Deering Oaks, downtown office buildings, and long stretches of I-295. Looking west from Munjoy Hill on a clear day, the dirty glacier a few blocks away looks almost as big as New Hampshire’s distant Presidential Range.

The city maintains an even more massive glacier on outer Congress Street, though that one is hidden in the woods near the Sable Oaks Golf Club. Viewed as simple piles of snow, they’re spectacular enough. But they’re more powerful and enduring than any snowbank. Just as the glaciers of the ice ages scraped away Arctic rocks to deposit them in eskers and drumlins throughout Maine, Portland’s glaciers have accumulated a layered history of the city’s pollution, as the city scrapes away snow and grime from the streets and redeposits them on these empty lots.

In warmer months, all that junk washes down Portland’s storm drains and into the sewer system. But when it’s cold, snow-removal crews end up collecting the city’s effluvia and storing it above ground, for all to see. Understanding what’s inside the city’s glaciers, as they sit and melt away in Bayside and on outer Congress, is a good way to understand the kind of pollution — and how much of it — we send into Casco Bay.

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  Topics: News Features , Science and Technology, Nature and the Environment, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,  More more >
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 See all articles by: CHRISTIAN McNEIL