I'm looking out the window of my office on Propwash Bay Road in Arbor Vitae, WI. It's snowing........again. With a back ground in natural resource management and having spent a ton of time outdoors playing in our wonderful four season weather, I've learned a lot of fun things about snow. Emotionally, it creates everything from despair to nirvana. Practically, it ranges from brutal work to outrageous fun. Here are some thoughts on snow. Forgive me for not crediting all sources. This is random stuff from decades of experience with snow.
Subnivium is the micro-climate where the snow meets the frozen ground. Subnivian animals, like some small rodents, depend on the relative warmth of Subnivium micro climate during our long winters. They rely on snow like you rely on a blanket to separate you from colder air above your bed at night. The snow acts as a blanket right at the layer between ground and snow. Some rodents will make extensive passage ways in that space, staying relatively warm compared to the air temperature up top,You will find their emergence holes near bases of trees or in shrub thickets; anywhere they might find food. If snow comes early in the winter, the ground won't freeze as deep.
Hold Your Breath
As snow piles on top of lake ice less light gets to the underwater environment. This means less photosynthesis by aquatic species. This in turn means lower oxygen levels for aquatic life. Fish may become lethargic or even suffocate to death in shallow bodies of water.
Avalanches kill people in three ways; blunt force trauma, hypothermia and suffocation. When a person is buried and immobilized by snow, a small open area will quickly form around the face, so the person can breath. That open area will continue to grow until the melting snow becomes cold enough to form a layer of ice, coating the inside of that open area. This can take just a few minutes. At that point, no air can get to the buried person. I never experienced this, but I learned about it while mountaineering in the Chugach Range of Alaska.
Have Mercy When It's Snowing
Farley Mowat and others have written about an interesting ritual of indigenous peoples of Arctic Areas. I suppose this ritual is rare nowadays. In the decades past, during the long months of winter indigenous people of the arctic would live and travel in small groups; perhaps a family or two, together. Theirs was an oral tradition, with story telling being a vehicle for learning, lore, religion, life skills and wisdom. As such, older people, Elders, were highly esteemed. However, on occasion when a elderly person could no longer be a net contributor to food, clothing and shelter, they would wait until a severe storm set in and then quietly leave their igloo or other lodging completely naked, wandering off in the snow as an act of mercy to those they left behind. Those inside were aware of this, and it was considered disrespectful to chase after the Elder in a rescue attempt.
Eskimos, one indigenous group of the Arctic, has over 50 words for snow. Pay attention to the details during the next snow storm and you will see how this could be. Also the Eskimo culture is trans global above the Arctic Circle. The Eskimo culture and language is more homogeneous above the Artic Circle than any other culture and language group in any other climate. There are difference from one continent to the other, but variations are not as extreme as, say, indigenous people groups from the rain forest of South America, Africa and New Guinea.
Snow in the Desert
There are places in the Antarctic and Artic that are considered deserts in regards to total precipitation each year. Just a very small amount of snow each year, but it's been going on for a very long time, leading to massive amounts of ice and deep snow.
Take it Easy
Guess which is more strenuous; running on a tread mill or shoveling snow. Tests show that shoveling snow is the tougher work out. Also, being out in the cold can cause restrictions in blood circulation and respiratory activity. This combination is likely why thousands of cardiac events, leading to hundreds of deaths, occur each year across North America. Some of these deaths happen to people otherwise seemingly healthy and active. Take it easy moving the white stuff.
A Ton of Fun
The local numbers are hard to pinpoint regarding the economic impact of snow on tourism, but there is no denying it's real in a big way. Here in the Northwoods, if there is snow, cash flows. Our phones ring with people using their homes and wanting cleaning. Hotels fill up. Restaurants are busy. Shops are hopping. Gas stations have lines. It's good all around. That's why we call it White Gold up here. It is very common for our area to have snow when no place else in the state, or even the Mid West, has snow. While out skiing or fat biking I've met people from as far away as southern Iowa because, "This was the only place we could find snow to play in."
With 16 inches coming down last week, 6 predicted today, a big storm over the weekend on the way and another next week, we are likely to break February records for snow fall. We have about 2.5 feet on the ground and we are running out of places to put it. In some respects, "that aint nothing." February 13, 1959, a storm rolled in over Mount Shasta Ski Bowl in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. It continued to snow until February 16. When the sky cleared, 189 inches of fresh snow were measure. That's 15.75 feet. That's then annual snow fall total less than an hour north west of here in Hurley, Wisconsin. In our part of Vilas County, 100 inces is a good snow year. However, a few years back, lake affect snow bands off of Lake Superior set up that dumped something like 70 inches southwest of Montreal, Wisconsin in just 3 days. It made the national news. Here we got less than a foot.
Snow is Like a Fish
Just like the fish you caught 20 years ago, the more historic the snow fall the bigger the snow. (That may bring into question the 70 inches above, but that was just a few years ago so that total hasn't had much time to grow.) I have an fun memory from '78 or '79. We lived near the north end of Glidden Drive in Door County Wisconsin, near the Hitching Post. We got so much snow in one storm that it took three days for the county plow truck to open one lane from Valmy to our little community of Whitefish Bay. (Not to be confused with Whitefish Bay just north of Milwaukee). When the plow truck made the sweeping turn on to Lakeshore Drive, avoiding a run in to Lake Michigan at the boat landing, it met a wall of wind blown snow. It got just far enough into the drift that the walls of the now plowed snow collapsed on the doors of the plow truck, trapping the driver inside. He had a radio and called the shop. The shop called Armand Tipler, our neighbor, who fired up his front end loader and dug the truck out. On another occasion, a storm set in so quickly during the school day that administrator decided to keep everyone overnight that could not get picked up by four-wheel drive truck or snow mobile. Those that did arrive to pick up their kids were encouraged to drop off blankets and pillows. Most of the overnight students and teachers unrolled the wrestling mats in the gym and stayed there. Me? I was a janitor at our school so I had keys to the entire facility. It would be best if I did not tell you where I was or what me and my coed high friends were doing that night. Leave it at this; we didn't get much sleep and the school cafeteria was short on cookies, served with breakfast, the next morning. During my many years in Wisconsin I've seen snow flurries in early June and early September.
Where Does the White Go When the Snow Melts?
We see color because objects reflect only certain colors of the light spectrum. As light strikes snow, the light spectrum is equally scattered and reflected, which, altogether, appears as white. The reflection of light off of snow is so bright that it can cause snow blindness, especially in late February and March when the sun is as strong as the past October and September. But that bright ball in the sky has less of an effect on temperatures than last fall because the reflective qualities of the snow prevent the radiant heat of the sun from warming objects, which in turn warms the air. I test this theory every year by popping a few holes in the snow and ice cover blanketing our black top driveway. Doing so always speeds up the melt.
Where Does All the Water Go When the Snow Melts?
On average, 10 inches of snow equals about 1 inch of rain. In other words, the water content of snow varies. An ideal melt happens with gradual warming over weeks and maybe a little rain. This gives the melt water ample time to run into our many lakes and streams. A less than ideal melt comes with rapid warming and warm rain. You may then find the water flooding roads, trapped against your foundation walls, or causing ice dams on your roof. If that water gets inside, give us a call. We are happy to help you get the water out and get your home or business dried out.
Until next time, hope you enjoy the balance of the winter
Eric Nei - The Cleaning Guy