Out There: Wanting the snow to go away?

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At this time of year, I don’t hear of anybody that wants more snow. In fact, I hear that some think it would be nice if the snow would just go away. There are places that don’t have any snow. I have heard of people in Texas, the state that usually has “everything” except snow, who have had a truckload of snow shipped to them from Canada. Now, that isn’t usual but there are talks about piping water from Canada to California and having it delivered in plastic bottles. Admittedly, for some, snow may be a real challenge but could it be to complain about it seems to be an acceptable way to vent some other really unrelated frustrations? Most people accept the snow and realize and live the idea that it has a very critical role in our environment, while admitting there is little that can be done about it but to enjoy it and possibly make use of it or even be creative with it. Needless to say, water has an important role in our environment, which is a source of our well-being.

A month or so ago, Kootenay Pass had about 75 per cent of the amount of snow it had at this time last year. But as weather can go, between now and the end of May it may catch up and may even end up being far more than normal, when with the valley greening up, some don’t even think about skiing in the pass.

Adequate snowfall at higher elevations assures a consistent supply of water to the lower slopes and valleys via creeks and rivers throughout the Columbia-Kootenay mountains. While we have a few snowbanks around and perhaps more to come, the biggest bank of snow is in those mountains. Cooler temperatures at higher elevations keep the snow from melting till summer arrives, when it begins to be slowly released as snowmelt till mid-summer. Fortunately it doesn’t usually melt all at once. But in the past, in June, during a two- to three-week period of unusually hot weather, that snowmelt has inundated the valleys in the Columbia-Kootenay drainage with enough water to cover everything except the tops of the cottonwood trees. When this happens, the soil on the flats is revitalized.

Not all the snow runs as water down the mountain creeks but soaks into the soil and deep rocky crevices, in turn securing a slow release of moisture to plant and animal life throughout the year. It keeps our environment green and from getting too hot by the cooling process of evaporation from the vegetation.

Other major benefits include snow’s insulative qualities. Some of us have had that indelibly impressed in our thinking when inadequately covered water lines have frozen from not having that expected snow covering. When snow lands, the individual flakes together form almost as many minute spaces trapping air that, all put together, forms a very effective insulating covering, a perfect barrier to cold. I remember, as a kid, digging snow caves and discovering firsthand how cozy and warm it was in there compared to outside. It was also quite stuffy.

Each winter, I am reminded of the effectiveness of snow as an insulation protecting the earth from winter’s cold blast. Last fall, before the snow arrived, the ground froze hard down several inches. After a foot of snow accumulated, the ground’s surface thawed from below, becoming wet, melting the snow next to it while above-snow temperatures were –18 C. This winter, I conducted a little experiment to determine if I could put some frost sensitive plants in the ground for the winter. I dug a two-foot-deep hole, put a temperature sensor in it, covered it with a grid and then a large pile of leaves. At first, when there was no snow cover, the temperature dropped to several degrees below freezing; however, when the snow came, the temperature in the winter pit was always above freezing, no mater how cold it was outside. I also discovered that snow, once it is disturbed, loses its insulating quality.

That snowy blanket not only protects your spring flower bulbs and perennials from winter’s killing frost, but also provides protective passage to small critters who are normally active much of the winter. Picas, whose dens and runs permeate rock piles at high elevations, feed all winter on stacks of dried vegetation under the rocks that are covered with possibly 10 feet of snow. Mice, shrews and voles travel over ground through snow tunnels escaping the searching gaze of hawks and owls. Only by very sensitive hearing and smell can coyotes and great grey owls locate food below and successfully rout it out. Bears can hibernate under a stump or in a pile of brush that is sheltered by a thick covering of snow. Beware if you come upon a hump of snow where vapour arises from a hole in the top. (The sign, “Sleeping bear. Do not disturb”, sometimes gets covered up with snow.)

Sometimes when we go out to remove the snow for the fourth day in a row, we need to remind ourselves that it is very useful stuff even though it seems to get in our way. If it wasn’t for snow, none of us likely would be here. Snow makes the Kootenay country what it is — greeny, magnificent scenery, fresh and naturally scented air and sparkling, cool, clear water. We need to look after the place where the snow falls!

Ed McMackin is a biologist by profession but a naturalist and hiker by nature. He can be reached at 250-866-5747.