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In The Country

Winter wonderland

Tim Iverson, Naturalist

(12/2017) Some dream of a white Christmas, just like the ones they used to know. By some estimates at least 1 septillion flakes fall every winter in the United States. For clarification, thatís a 1 followed by 24 zeros! West Central Maryland rooftops donít generally glisten and todayís kids arenít prone to listening for sleigh bells in the snow though. That fluffy white stuff falls less and less these days, but it pays dividends for the environment.

Snowflakes comes in all shapes and sizes. Legend even states that no two snowflakes are alike. These unique ice crystals form up in the clouds when water droplets freeze, making a six-sided crystal structure. As the temperature drops more vapor freezes branching out off of the initial ice crystal. While most snowflakes are symmetrical six-sided structures, some snowflakes materialize as triangles, hourglasses, spools, and other strange shapes. Shape and size depend mostly on temperature, moisture, and wind. The largest snowflake ever to be recorded was 15 inches wide and fell in Fort Keogh, Montana in 1887 (according to the Guinness Book of World Records).

Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley was the first person to photograph a snowflake. His interest grew as a small child in Jericho, Vermont. He was utterly fascinated by the falling flakes and tried drawing them as he viewed them through a microscope. Due to their fleeting nature he struggled to accurately depict them before they melted. As an adult he had the notion to attempt to photograph them. Bentley walked through his family farm fields holding a piece of black velvet catching snowflakes as they descended. With a feather he brushed aside the ones he wasnít interested in. When he found ones he liked best he would place them under a specially designed microscope attached to a camera. On January 15, 1885 he snapped the very first photograph of a snowflake. Throughout the course of his life he captured over 5,000 images and published about half of them just before he died in 1931.

Maryland is considered a mild or temperate climate. Averaging just 20.6 inches of snow statewide, though local results may differ depending on whether you reside in Garrett or Worcester county or anywhere in between. Locally the largest single snowfall event occurred in January 2016 when winter storm Jonas dropped 33.5 inches on Frederick, breaking the previous record of 31 inches from a blizzard in 1983.

Some like it hot, and as the reports from NOAA and NASA detailed 2016 was the hottest year on record. As was 2015 the year before that, and 2014 the year before that. Currently 2017 ranks as the second hottest year on record, but we are on pace to break the record yet again. With extended warm and dry spells, especially throughout winter, risk of wildfires increases exponentially. Increased evaporation from warm winter days dries out forest floors and leaves leaf litter less compact making them more susceptible to fire risk later in the year. The western United States has been thoroughly ravaged by fires the past several years, coinciding with warmer and drier winters.

Itís a common urban legend that 10 inches of snow is the equivalent of 1 inch of rain. The truth is a little more complicated, but it isnít far off. This truism holds when temperatures hover around freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit), but in warmer temperatures (like late winter/early spring snows) snow is usually comprised of more water. The exchange rate could be as high as 5 inches of snow to 1 inch of water. With colder temperatures, where snow is fluffier and lighter, the ratio can be as high as 15 inches of snow to 1 inch of water. This can make the type of melt all the more important.

A slow melt would benefit the water table and aquifer by slowly percolating and trickling slowly through the soil refilling our aquifer and our drinking supply. Snowmelt that does seep into the aquifer will help to stave off drought conditions later in the year. On the flip side, a fast melt clears roadways, but leads to other problems. A fast melting heavier snow could certainly lead to potential flooding and polluted runoff. If drainage areas are obstructed or clogged this compounds the problem spilling polluted runoff directly into streams and waterways. Digging out gutters and drainage areas would help to mitigate these problems.

When old man winter pulls a blanket of snow over our heads the snow actually acts a lot like a blanket. Freshly fallen snow is comprised of 90 - 95% air, which like a blanket, acts as an insulator. The air contained within is constricted and prevents warmth from the ground leeching into the air above. The depth of snow increases the temperature about 2 degrees Fahrenheit per inch. This helps protect gardens, landscapes, and animals found sheltering within wild areas. One study found that at -14 degrees Fahrenheit the soil under a 9 inch snowfall registered at 28 degrees Fahrenheit. This difference can be critical for some species. Snow also lessens extreme temperature fluctuations. If the temperature rises high enough during the day plants will attempt to take moisture from the soil. If soil is frozen solid this can lead to dehydration causing some plants to die from thirst. Melting snow helps to prevent this by providing much needed moisture to plants. While mostly beneficial to evergreens, which keep foliage year round, dormant plants continue to lose water through evaporation. Snowfall and melt help to replenish much needed water supplies and prevent injury or death.

While most animals will either migrate or hibernate during the winter, others simply adapt. Many even thrive in the snowy conditions. When that blanket of snow covers the ground it acts as an igloo for many small mammals, keeping them warm and safe from predators. Mice, moles, voles, and shrews depend on these snow blankets because they donít have enough fur or fat to adequately protect them from cold or harsh conditions. Underneath the snow they create a network of tunnels that provides fresh warm air and plenty of escape routes from predators like foxes or coyotes. Other predators, like the Arctic Fox, will change coats during the winter months donning a fresh white fur to help camouflage with the snow. Living underneath the snow pack allows the chance for survival until temperatures rise and food is bountiful again.

If youíre not a fan of snow try migrating south. Key West, Florida has never reported snow and the coldest temperature ever recorded was 41 degrees in January 1981. Legislating against snow might be a nice gesture as well. In 1992 the city council of Syracuse, NY passed a decree outlawing any additional snow before Christmas Eve. It snowed just two days later though, proving yet again that nature canít easily be subdued. Whether you despise snow or you dream of a white winter, remember as you inevitably shovel out that snow ensures a better, wetter, healthier year later on.

Read other articles by Tim Iverson