Temperature Extremes Cause Pothole Problems in Northeast

By Samantha-Rae Tuthill, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
January 18, 2014; 8:28 AM ET
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Another round of frigid air is moving into the United States, and the results could be messy for roadways in the Northeast.

Early January brought a string of icy, record-low temperatures to many parts of the Midwest and the East, with each state in the Union hitting the freezing mark in at least one location on Jan. 7.

The following warmup, with above-average highs, and a string of rain melted a good deal of snow across the country, particularly in the Northeast, triggering some flooding problems and ice jams. When water hits paved roads, it can seep into the asphalt and cracks in the streets and can remain below the surface.

Fluctuating temperatures can wreak havoc on paved roads as water freezes and expands, causing cracks, frost heaves and potholes. (Photo/Vlad Dimov)

Now as another piece of the polar vortex is invading the United States, that water melt will likely refreeze, causing expansion and frost heaves, much to the dismay of many commuters.

"The frost heaves the ground beneath [the roads] and creates some buckles in the pavement, followed by cracks," AccuWeather.com Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski said. "Water gets in the cracks and freezes, expands, making the cracks bigger. Then traffic breaks off more pieces of pavement. A rainstorm can then get more water in there loosening up more pavement."

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"Freeze and thaw cycles are the key. The more you have, the more potholes," he said.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation's Klark Jessen agreed, adding that the weight of vehicles and the pavement's age, as well as snow and ice operations, are contributors to the pothole problem.

This cycle can be a headache for travelers and potentially damaging to vehicles. According to Popular Mechanics, running over a pothole too hard can bend tire rims, a damage costs that can run more than $150 to repair.

"Down South, they [typically] don't get the freeze that penetrates into the ground. Way up north most winters, they don't get the thaw until the spring, so pothole season is shorter," Sosnowski said.

The fluctuating pattern that the U.S. has been experiencing so far this season could be adding extra wear and tear on the roadways.

An additional problem for roadways in the winter months is that long-term solutions need warmer air to work properly. According to Jessen, "cold patch" asphalt, which is only a temporary solution, may be used in lower temperatures.


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Samantha-Rae Tuthill at tuthills@accuweather.com, follow her on Twitter @Accu_Sam or Google+. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.

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