From Shaman’s Rock
By Jim Poling Sr.
Many folks are cheering the recent arrival of snow that has been missing for most of this unusual winter.
Lack of snow in October, November and December has been tough on businesses that rely on winter activity spending. Ski hills, snowmobile services, restaurants, confectionary and grocery stores and others all have been hurt by the snowless first half of winter.
Some regional tourism officials estimate financial losses in the millions of dollars because of the lack of snow. So, the recent snowfalls finally have given them reason to cheer.
Plants and animals can’t cheer, but if they could their voices would be loud and happy.
We humans often see winter as a time pretty much devoid of life. Bears and some other animals are hibernating; many birds have gone south. However, unseen by us are life activities beneath the snow. Life that is preserved by the snow.
A snow pack of just a few inches can stabilize soil temperatures, providing just enough warmth to keep snakes, bugs and small animals like voles and mice from freezing. The snow also gives them some protection from predators.
Some plants continue to be active beneath the winter snow. It insulates their root systems from extreme cold, while mosses, fungi and even flowers continue to function and even germinate beneath the snow.
Without snow, life becomes more difficult for animals that don’t hibernate or go south.
The lynx with its snowshoe-like paws has a harder time pursuing prey. Others, like some hares whose coats turn white when snow arrives, are more exposed to predators.
Wolverines, which have been making a bit of a comeback in Ontario, do not reproduce well in the absence of snow. Snow cover in areas where they reproduce has been diminishing.
Some Rocky Mountain regions are said to have two fewer weeks of snow cover than 50 years ago. One study has found that the Alps in Europe could lose as much as 70 per cent of its snow cover by 2100.
These changes are increasing scientific interest in winter ecology, the study of relationships between living things and their winter environment, Scientists studying climate change are documenting how less snow is creating changes in the global environment.
They are concerned that a warming planet with less snow and ice is forcing some plants and animals to move from regions they have occupied for centuries. For instance, areas with less annual snow melt could become unsuitable for growing food. Animals like the wolverine could abandon areas where less snow has reduced their ability to survive and reproduce.
Researchers are finding that earlier spring melting, and less of it, might be a reason why we are seeing more severe forest wildfires. Some research has found that landscapes burned by wildfires had less water from snowmelt than unburned areas. And, snow melted nine days earlier in burned areas compared with unburned areas.
There is a lot of talk and worry about melting glaciers, but the effects of disappearing glaciers are tiny compared to shrinking snow packs. Snow holds huge amounts of moisture that is released slowly as temperatures rise, nourishing plants as they need it.
Melting snow also becomes a natural reservoir system providing water for human communities. For instance, one-third of the water used by California cities and farmland comes from melted snowpacks.
Perhaps the most important factor of snow is that it helps regulate the temperature of an increasingly warming planet.
Snow is highly reflective, sending the sun’s radiation back into the atmosphere instead of into the ground where it increases the earth’s temperature.
Scientists say that new snow cover can reflect up to 90 per cent of the sun’s radiation back into the atmosphere. Sea ice reflects only roughly 60 per cent back to the sky, land without snow 10 to 20 percent and open ocean a mere six per cent.
So like it or hate it, winter’s snow is a critically important part of our world. We can live without the inconveniences it brings, and even the pleasures of winter recreations. But we cannot live without the water it provides to maintain our health and grow the food we need to survive.