This Just In: March 21- 28 | This Just In | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

This Week: Answering some of your most pressing weather-related questions.

What, exactly, causes a "water-main break"?

-- Maria, Brookline

I am so glad someone finally asked this question. Because on the news, all we ever hear about are the things that water-main breaks cause: "trouble," "pandemonium," "disruption," "flooding," "evacuation," "sinkholes," "low water pressure," "icy messes," "unplanned relocations" and of course, "traffic headaches" ... just to name a few.

What generally happens is that extreme cold drives frost to penetrate the ground more deeply. That in turn causes the earth to shift, and the pipes in it to snap. Water-main (or "pipe") breaks are also likely to happen when the temperature drops below 40 degrees, and temperatures inside the pipe differ from those on the pipe's exterior. The pipe "wigs out" and -- kaboom!

Breaks can also occur in extreme heat for similar reasons, but these breaks aren't as fascinating to local news crews, who by then have many summer festivals to cover.

And finally, sometimes a break can be caused by a combination of factors, such as extreme cold and an old water pipe. And Lord knows, we've got a lot of old pipe in this town.

Why is it that Pittsburghers wear shorts as soon as the thermometer hits 50 degrees?

-- Frank, Meadville

Because we fear nudity, Frank.

All winter long, you complain about salt reports. You say they are formulaic in that Jodine Costanzo (for example) stands in front of a pile of salt and rattles off how many pounds are in the pile, blah blah blah. So, Miss Smartypants, why don't you tell us what it all means?

-- Heidi, Heidelberg

"What it all means?" That's a pretty tall order, my friend.

I don't have all the answers, either, but I can tell you that, according to the Salt Institute (, which obviously has a vested interest here, it is generally agreed upon that salt is the most cost-effective and safest de-icer. And now for your numbers:

"Studies by the Salt Institute have determined that a loaded salt truck, spreading at the generally accepted rate of 500 pounds per two-lane mile for general storm conditions, can treat a 22.5-mile stretch of roadway, traveling a total of 45 miles." For example, the City of Pittsburgh has to treat 1,031 miles of roads during a snowstorm. You can do the math from there.

If you want to get helpful unsalt-related information on surviving a snowstorm, though, be sure to check out the Pittsburgh Public Works Web page and click, "Snow Shoveling: What do I do with the snow I shovel?" I have a few suggestions, but you'd best do what they say to avoid any trouble.

What's the difference between a climatologist and a meteorologist?

-- Bryce, Pleasant Hills

Bryce, I don't know what you take me for, but I try to run a clean, family-oriented column here. I think you'd best send this one to our syndicated sex guru, Dan Savage.

Why is it such a big deal when the Mon Wharf closes? I mean, how many parking spaces does it have, anyway? Why am I always reading "Mon Wharf Closed!" "Mon Wharf Open!" "Mon Wharf Closed Again!?" And what the hell is a "wharf" anyway?

-- Jennifer, Downtown

Let's start by defining wharf for you. According to Webster's, a wharf is "a structure of wood or stone, sometimes roofed over, built at the shore of a harbor, river, etc. for ships to lie alongside, as during loading or unloading." Another, obsolete, definition is "a bank at the water's edge; shore."

In Pittsburgh, however, a wharf is a parking lot at the water's edge ... a lot where, if you don't heed those daily warnings, you could end up to your ears in murky water.

As for your headline complaints, let's just say it's hard for bleary-eyed, night-turn editors to concoct synonyms for "open" and "closed."

Once the epicenter of maritime commerce in Pittsburgh, the Monongahela Wharf is now a deteriorated, five-acre parking lot that accommodates about 700 parking spaces. A plan is underway as part of the Point State Park improvement project (think: human bones, gas-line rupture) to transform it into a sustainable greenway accessible for pedestrians and cyclists. That project will take away about 300 of the wharf's parking spaces. And by my calculations, 43 percent of its local TV news coverage.

Why do we go all the way out to Punxutawney to have some stinky groundhog give us a bad weather forecast, when we can get an inaccurate forecast just as easily from any of the meteorologists here in town?

-- Mike, Hays

I'm thinking it has something to do with beer.

Why does it take two meteorologists to report a "storm"?

-- Bud, Aliquippa

That's an easy one, Bud. It's because they're salaried.

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