Fences and barriers often surround modern highways and roadways to protect wildlife from automobiles, and vice-versa. But snowmobiles, designed to handle varying terrain, can often travel where other vehicles can't. This has raised concerns that the snowmobile industry and environmental agencies have had to address.
Engine exhaust is a primary concern. As with cars, snowmobile engines release exhaust fumes into the atmosphere. Because snowmobilers often travel through parkland or wilderness areas not commonly used by motor vehicles, the effect of exhaust fumes on the environment has been studied as the pastime grows in popularity.
Snowmobile traffic is limited to designated trails in many areas like national parks. This ensures that vehicle traffic disturbs wildlife and vegetation as little as possible. Snowmobile trails often follow pre-existing footpaths or riverbeds, so little alteration has to be made to the natural setting. The presence of trail guides and marshals in public lands helps ensure compliance to the rules and regulations.
Noise is another issue. Early snowmobiles produced engine noise levels around 100 decibels, comparable to a diesel truck, disturbing both humans and animals in the vicinity. Technological advances used in other motor vehicles to reduce noise are also used in snowmobiles, like foam padding between the engine and hood and regulators on the exhaust and intake mechanisms.
Studies on the environmental impact of snowmobiles lag far behind those studying automobiles, simply because automobiles are used in much greater numbers, in a much larger area: There is an estimated four million snowmobiles in the colder areas of North America, compared to close to 200 million automobiles in the United States alone. However, snowmobiles' popularity carries a responsibility to protect the environment, as well as the rider.
Learn about the safety precautions that snowmobilers must take in the next section.