Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Corrina Parnapy: The Importance of Snow

During this winter, it seems to have been snowing almost every week. Snow is piling up making driving hard and causing roofs to collapse. While the snow may be causing problems for people, it is just what the environment needs. Winters with thick snow packs mean a productive, drought free summer.

Snow falls to the ground, insulating the soil and roots of plants. When the snow melts it sinks into the ground between cracks and crevices of the bedrock replenishing the groundwater supply. The snow-melt will seep into the pore spaces between the soil particles or flow over the ground, filtering out into the streams, springs and lakes, thereby recharging the surface water. Snow is the major form of precipitation in the Adirondacks. Mild winters threaten soil productivity, plant growth and freshwater resources.

Biogeochemical processes that take place in the soil can be halted during mild winters. The snow acts as a blanket that insulates the soil, keeping it from freezing. If there is a mild winter, there is less insulation, which results in root and microbial mortality and the leaching of important nutrients such as nitrogen. This results in less productive soils for the following growing season. Snow accumulates debris and nutrients from the atmosphere. These are released into the ground when the snow melts.

During mild winters, there is not enough snow to maintain the groundwater levels. Loss of water will shift fish habitats, decrease water quality and cause wetlands and vernal pools to disappear. The reduction in spring runoff will result in low flow levels or drought levels within streams. This will drastically affect cold-water fish species such as the Brook trout. Lower water levels will lead to increased water temperatures and concentrated nutrients and pollutants that may cause algal blooms. The higher water temperatures will result in lower dissolved oxygen levels, thereby killing off other fish species and macroinvertebrates. It is likely that during mild winters, it will rain. This rain can’t enter through the groundwater because the ground is frozen, it enters the streams by runoff, thus causing winter floods that destroy any fish eggs that were laid in the fall. The rain melts any snow packs present, thereby leaving no snow that would slowly melt and could sustain streams during the summer months.

It may seem that mild winters are bad, there is the fact that with lower snow levels, more animals are able to find food sources and survive through the cold winter months. If the snow gets to deep; deer and turkey will not be able to find food. Other species need the deeper snow to make travel over the winter wonderland easier.

While it may seem like it has been snowing almost all winter, just think of what this summer will bring; lush green vegetation, productive soils, and ample trout habitat and fishing. Go outside and enjoy the ample snow. I know I will.

Photo Above: Cave-in, Courtesy Jeremy Parnapy, Blueline Photography.
Corrina Parnapy is a Lake George native and a naturalist who writes regularly about the environment and Adirondack natural history for the Adirondack Almanack.


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Corrina Parnapy, an Adirondack native  transplanted to Vermont with her husband and son, is the District Manager for the largest Natural Resources Conservation District in the State of Vermont.  She is the lead Aquatic Biologist/ Phycologist for Avacal Biological, and writes about the natural world for the Adirondack Almanack and other Northeast publications.

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