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In The Country

"Snowpocalypse Plow"

Tim Iverson

(2/2016) The world is a complex place and full of gray areas. Upsides come with downsides, and until late January the winter of 2015-2016 has been exceptionally mild. Recently there were reports from NASA and NOAA detailing that 2015 was the hottest year on record. Then all at once winter came with a vengeance in late January - particularly frigid days and nights followed closely by the single largest snowfall event in Maryland history. Each of these unusual weather patterns will have downstream effects precipitated by the cause.

The warm temperatures of December could have effects down the line for the flora and fauna. The phenological phenomenon brought us Cherry Blossoms in the District, but will likely not harm their production come spring time. On average plants can produce new buds in about 30 days, so potential repercussions may be limited, but likely won’t be noticed until March or April when these processes typically occur. It may have no effect at all or could just produce a later bloom than usual. Insects would not appear during extended warm spells during the winter months because the pupa would not be mature enough to do so. However, warm temperatures might allow for fully developed larva and pupa to emerge as mature. This could mean more mosquitoes later in the year. Conversely, extended cold weather or rapid and deep cold snaps, such as one brought on by a blizzard, could damage larva and pupa. Dr. Yong-Lak Park, an entomologist at West Virginia University, said, "This weather will affect a lot. Each insect responds to temperature differently, so it is very hard to generalize what will happen." The pupal or larval stages takes several months to complete, but we may see an earlier emergence if the warm trend continues. Invasive species, like the Brown-Marmorated Stink Bug, are not well adapted to regionally harsh conditions so they may suffer as a result of sharp cold snaps or extended freezes.

Some like it hot, and as the reports from NOAA and NASA detailed 2015 was the hottest year on record. With extended warm and dry spells, especially throughout winter, risk of wildfires increases exponentially. Increased evaporation from these spring like days that visited us in December dries out forest floors and leaves leaf litter less compact making them more susceptible to fire risk later in the year. Winter Storm Jonas could help to offset these risks by providing much needed snowmelt to the ecosystem. A slow melt would also 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 can mean flooding. 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.

It’s 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 isn’t 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 fast melting heavier snow could certainly lead to potential flooding and polluted runoff.

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.

The excessive amounts of snow precipitation that are brought on by a blizzard can cause flooding. Eventually the precipitation is evaporated and drawn back up into the atmosphere. Water vapor in the atmosphere can lead to greater rainfall and heavy storms later in the year according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA elaborates that the increased moisture also leads to increased fungal growth too. A rise in molds can be beneficial for breaking down fallen trees and leaf litter, but can also be detrimental to healthy living organisms causing die offs. Continuous moisture can lead to mold growth in homes which can be harmful to humans who may have allergies.

While it seems like we’re currently living in a snow globe rest assured warm and sunny days are not far off. Appreciate the seasonal apparition and what it can do for us later in the year when temperatures soar to record highs. If the past few years have been any indication we’ll need that extra water. While warming trends continue to occur globally and regional issues of heat and drought abound we can at least remember that Jonas offset some risks. The Snow Miser, from the holiday classic "The Year Without a Santa Claus," may bestow more snow before long. If so, try to focus on the benefits to wildlife and aquifer regeneration while you’re digging out.

Read other articles by Tim Iverson