Saturday, February 27, 2010

Adirondack Winter: Musings on Snow

By the time you read this post, you may be getting sick of snow. We shouldn’t really complain too much, though, for up until this week, we have had very little snowfall in 2010. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I had to shovel my driveway before this week. February has been downright dry and snowless, so the windfall of white stuff this week has brought should be a welcome sight, even if we don’t appreciate it until summer, when hot dry days take their toll on available surface and ground water.

Still, shoveling a foot or more of heavy wet snow can make it hard to appreciate its finer qualities. After all, many of us aren’t kids any more, and once you cease playing in the snow, it can be hard to appreciate those finer qualities. So let’s take a few moments for some snow appreciation.

For example, many of us grew up hearing things like “Eskimos have over 100 words for snow.” While the people from the far north certainly have a leg up on the rest of us when it comes to snow and understanding all its subtle ways, this statement is a bit of an exaggeration. Here are a few snow terms used by scientists that come to us from the Kobuk Valley Eskimos of Alaska:

• Anniu (an-nee-you) falling snow (I’m seeing a LOT of this out the window as I write)
• Api (ah-pee) snow on the ground
• Siqoq (see-kok) drifting snow or “snow snakes” you see blowing across the snow or along the road (we won’t be seeing many of these from this storm…the snow is too wet and heavy)
• Upsik (oop-sik) wind-packed snow
• Qali (kal-i) snow that collects on tree branches and fence posts
• Qamaniq (ka-man-ik) a bowl-shaped hollow in the snow around the bottom of an evergreen tree (does this also apply to snowsticks and lawn ornaments?)

Are you one of those people who occasionally snack on snow? If so, you might want to try this little experiment. Take a clean bowl outside and fill it with freshly fallen snow. Place a lid over the top and bring it inside. Set the bowl aside and let the snow melt. Once you have a bowl full of liquid, pour it through a paper towel or coffee filter into another bowl. Now, take a good look at the filter or towel. Does it look clean? Look again, but this time use a hand lens or magnifying glass. Kind of makes you think twice about the phrase “pure as the driven snow,” doesn’t it?

While you have this bowl of melted snow, you might just want to do an acidity test on it. Most folks can get hold of litmus paper pretty easily these days – try any science shop or catalogue (or ask your local school’s science teacher). Dip the paper into the melted snow and see what color the paper turns. Is the liquid acidic, neutral or basic? We like to think of snow as clean and harmless, but both these experiments are likely to open your eyes to a different truth.

Air pollutants leave particulate and chemical matter in the snow. When snow melts slowly, the increase of acidity and particulates in lakes and streams is gradual. However, if we get a week of very warm temperatures, the snowpack can melt quickly, sending a sudden rush of contaminated liquid into our waterways. This can, and often does, have negative impacts on populations of fish, aquatic insects and amphibians. Many of these species are highly sensitive to changes in their environment, and a sudden drastic decline in pH can wreak havoc on their fragile systems.

Let’s turn now to something a bit more up-beat for which the recent packy snow is ideal: snow snakes. The game of snow snakes comes to us from many of the Native American peoples who lived in the snowy north. The snakes were made from long, narrow pieces of wood, often carved or shaped to resemble the reptile for which they are named. Historically, snow snakes ranged from maybe a foot to ten feet long, depending on the tribe, and were heaved down a snowy, icy track; the snake that went the furthest won. These tracks were traditionally made by dragging a log through the snow, which created a trough. The troughs were sometimes up to half a mile long, and often started at the top of a gradual incline. I’ve read accounts that claim that some snow snakes would travel for a mile or more! Around these parts, I suspect the terrain is too wooded and hilly for such lengthy travels, but a long fairway on a golf course would certainly make a pretty good run. My dad carved me a snow snake for Christmas this winter (I think I’ll name it Siqoq). It still needs some sanding, painting and varnishing, but I am looking forward to giving it a try…all I need is a track and some fellow competitors.

If all else fails to make you appreciate our current wintery status, then go outside and do something really traditional: build a snowman. Heck – build a whole snow family. In fact, I challenge you to take the Calvin (as in the cartoon Calvin and Hobbs) approach to snowman building: come up with a theme that will have the neighbors stopping in their tracks. You don’t need to be a kid to enjoy the snow…just a kid at heart. Your snow fun can be as simple as catching snowflakes on black paper and looking at them with a hand lens, or as involved as building an igloo. The possibilities are almost endless. All it takes is a positive outlook and a sense of fun.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





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