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From UB, better way to fence snow in

Stuart Chen has an answer for the blowing snow that can make winter travel around these parts so treacherous:

Build a better snow fence.

Chen, a University at Buffalo engineering professor, has developed a software package -- "SnowMan" -- that determines the precise size, scope and placement of snow fences along roads where blowing and drifting is a problem.

Until now, he said, it has been an inexact science.

"There's no free lunch, you're going to get it," Chen said of blowing snow. "Just hopefully, it's not where it's going to cause a problem."

SnowMan -- short for Snow Management -- was funded by and designed for the state Department of Transportation, which needed some tools to help control blowing snow along New York's blustery highways, like Route 219, said Darrell Kaminski, a DOT design engineer, who assisted Chen on the project.

Snow fences do work. As air passes through the porous fences, it creates turbulence, Chen explained, causing the wind to deposit snow particles onto the ground behind the fence, leaving the road clear.

But typically, Kaminski said, the fences are a standard height and placed near the road, based on general knowledge of the local terrain.

SnowMan, on the other hand, is more precise, taking into account factors like climate data to calculate the best height and placement of a fence. The software program can also be used by engineers to design roads with drifting in mind, Chen said.

The DOT already has used SnowMan to help the Town of Alden install a snow fence at Wende Road and Walden Avenue, Kaminski said.

And while snow fences may not be aesthetically pleasing, they can help prevent accidents and save on road maintenance costs, Kaminski said.

"I think we may see more," he added.

Chen designed the software package with former UB graduate student Michael Lamanna and with the expertise of Ronald Tabler, a Colorado-based consultant in snow and wind engineering.

But Chen -- an associate professor in the department of civil, structural and environmental engineering -- admits he knew nothing about snow fences before he started this project.

Now, he takes notice when driving around Western New York's wind-swept roads.

"I'll wonder," Chen said, " 'Gee, how much would it be improved by putting up a snow fence?' "

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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