Best Snow

Audio:  mp3

Skier at Brian Head
Photo Courtesy USDA Forest Service

As the mountains begin to take on hues of scarlet, gold and russet, many Utahns might be looking eagerly toward the coming months when those slopes will be blanketed in white. The Utah ski industry nurtures a whopping annual income of about $800 million dollars. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the state claims to have the “greatest snow on earth.” In fact, the state of Utah managed to make their slogan a federal trademark in 1995 after winning a lawsuit brought by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus group, who felt the catchy marketing phrase might be confused with their slogan, the Greatest Show on Earth.

The trademark must have worked, because Utah draws so many visitors to its slopes, it racks up about 4 million skier days annually. But disregard plenty of evidence that we do indeed draw a crowd, and the statement is pretty subjective. So what’s the science behind our legendary powder?

The ideal condition skiers hope for is a deep, fluffy snow that creates the illusion of bottomless powder. And finding it is a bit like the Goldilocks story. Too wet, and you bog down. Too dry, and there’s not enough body to create a floating sensation beneath the ski. If the terrain is too steep, the powder won’t stick. And if it’s not steep enough, you can’t build sufficient momentum to glide over the top.

To get to the bottom of why Utah’s snow is just right, we actually have to look even further westward, toward the slow warm waters of the North Pacific current. As water laden clouds move inland, snow first falls over the Cascades in the north and the Sierra Nevadas further south, with an average moisture content of 12%. Even in areas like Washington’s Mt. Baker, where annual snowfall comes in greater quantities than Utah, the moister maritime snow creates a heavy base that bogs down skis. By the time these winter storms cross the Great Basin and reach the skiers’ Mecca of Alta and the Wasatch Range, the moisture content will have decreased to about 8.5%. And that seems to be the sweet spot. The moisture content of Utah’s intermountain snow is just enough that powder from our first storms settles into a soft but voluminous base. As winter progresses, fresh snow falls in a cold and mostly arid environment, forming very fine, symmetrical crystals called dendrites. The microscopic structure of dendrites allows them to accumulate in well ventilated, incompact drifts, much like the puffy down in your favorite pillow or ski jacket.

And perfect powder isn’t the only advantage Utah’s ski resorts have over their neighbors. Our mountainous topography, with its wealth of winding canyons, means we have an abundance of slopes well protected from strong winds which could compact or carry away fresh snowfall. And while so many cold and overcast days might get you down, it also protects our top powder from radiation and air mass effect, which can create a crust along the surface. And that means our freshly fallen powder sticks around for longer.

So consider that Utah offers 26,000 acres of mountain, blanketed in more than 500 annual inches of perfect intermountain snow, and it’s no wonder we enjoy 5 times the number of “powder days” as our neighbors. “The Greatest Snow on Earth” starts sounding a lot less subjective, and more like truth. In fact, you just might be tempted to make like Goldilocks and make yourself at home.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Ru Mahoney.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy USDA Forest Service, fs.usda.gov
Text:     Ru Mahoney, Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon.


Additional Reading:

Properties of Water

Audio:  mp3

Water as frost on a window
Courtesy and © Andrea Liberatore

Surface tension – water drops
on a quarter
Courtesy and © Andrea Liberatore

Water as snowflakes
Courtesy and © Andrea Liberatore

In our winter wonderland, water is all around. It piles upon the landscape in great white drifts. It is a substance life is completely dependent upon and as ordinary as it seems, this tasteless, odorless substance is actually quite amazing. Up to 60% of our body mass is due to water, and life as we know it would not exist if not for water’s unique physical properties.

When most known liquids get colder they contract – shrinking around 10 percent in total volume. Water contracts too, but only until it reaches its freezing point, at which time it reverses course and begins to expand. This molecular marvel does wonderful things for life on earth. As water freezes and expands, the resulting ice becomes lighter than its liquid form, causing it to float. If ice contracted as other liquids do, it would sink, and lakes would freeze from the bottom up – and freeze quickly, meaning big changes for aquatic life. Water in all forms happens to be a very good insulator, meaning that it doesn’t change temperature very quickly. Ice floating on top of a pond insulates the water underneath, keeping it warmer, and therefore liquid, longer than it normally would. Obviously this is beneficial for local creatures like fish and beavers not to mention the penguins, whales and seals that thrive in the colder parts of our planet.

Another critical property of water is its stickiness. Individual molecules are generally more attracted to each other than to other substances such as air or soil. This ‘stickiness’, or cohesion, creates surface tension, which allow puddles, rivers, and raindrops to form, and also enables water striders to glide on the water’s surface and rocks to skip across a lake. Water tension is also responsible for a tree’s ability to siphon water from the soil and transport it to the very topmost leaf. However water’s bonds aren’t so strong as to be unable to break when a fish swims through or when you cannonball into the deep end. You can observe surface tension at home by dripping water onto the head of a coin, and watching it ball up into a surprisingly large mound.

Water is also one of the only known substances that naturally occurs in three phases – solid, liquid, and gas. This is important to many facets of life including the proper functioning of the weather system as we know it. Thankfully, there is a lot of water here on earth – about 320 million cubic miles of it. However, only four tenths of a percent of that comes in the form of freshwater lakes & rivers. Most of the rest is locked up in glaciers and oceans. It’s also important to realize that this is all of the water that Earth has ever had, and all the water we’re ever going to get, which can lead to some interesting thoughts about where that water you are about to drink has previously been. Perhaps it was once part of Lake Bonneville, in the snow that fell on the back of a wooly mammoth, or in a puddle slurped up by a brachiosaurus. If only water could talk…

For more sources and to calculate your water-use footprint, visit our website at www.wildaboututah.org.

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.

Credits:

Images:  Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon.

Text:     Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon.

 

Additional Reading:

Bryson, Bill (2004) A Short History of Nearly Everything. Broadway (Random House): New York.

U.S. Geological Survey (2013) The USGS Water Science School. Accessible online at: http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/

United Nations: Water. Accessible online at http://www.unwater.org/

Calculate your water footprint:
http://www.waterfootprint.org/?page=files/YourWaterFootprint

 

A Safari through Utah’s Ice Age

Audio:  mp3

Wave-cut platforms from
Lake Bonneville preserved on
Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake, Utah.
Photo Courtesy Wikimedia, Mark A. Wilson (Department of Geology, The College of Wooster), Photographer

Ground sloth of the Pleistocene
Paramylodon harlani
Texas Memorial Museum
University of Texas at Austin.
Photo Courtesy Wikimedia
Licensed CCA Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Lake Bonneville compared to the
State of Utah.
Photo Courtesy http://wildlife.utah.gov/gsl/history/


Hi, I’m Ru Mahoney with Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon. As winter approaches I find myself anticipating the first really good snow, when our valley floors and mountain passes will be transformed overnight, relinquishing autumn’s riot of color for a glacial monochrome. As little as 12,000 years ago winter white was Utah’s perennial favorite, donned at the launch of the Pleistocene Epoch, a roughly 2 million year long period (give or take 10,000 years) marked by widely recurring glaciations.

The west has a reputation for being vast, but Ice Age Utah was even bigger. The mountains where higher and sharper. And the Great Salt Lake was submerged beneath the glacial waters of Lake Bonneville. At its largest, this massive body of water covered 20,000 square miles and was more than 980 feet deep. To put that into perspective, that measures about 9.5 million football fields wide by 4.5 Salt Lake Temples deep. And the Ice Age wildlife? Well it was much more akin to an African safari than anything you’re likely to find on your favorite shoreline trail these days.

The megafauna of Pleistocene Utah included a menagerie of beasts that are the stuff of legend. Familiar species like bison and big-horn sheep grazed among herds of mammoths and mastodons. Camels and horses – destined for extinction in North America – were the prehistoric prey of dire wolves and saber-toothed cats. Giant ground sloths the size of modern day elephants stood on two powerful hind legs to browse on shoreline foliage. And herds of muskoxen kept a wary eye on Arctodus, the Short-faced bear, a formidable predator more than 50% larger than any bear species living today.

The last 30,000 years of Utah’s Ice Age were characterized by increasingly volatile shifts in climate. The changing norms in temperature and abundance of liquid water created cyclical periods of transitioning habitat. Forests and forest dwellers gave way to deserts and their specialist species, before shifting back to forests again, all in mere millennia. While nomadic and highly adaptable species like muskoxen eventually moved north to more stable climates, the less adaptable fauna of the Ice Age were increasingly relegated to sharing shoreline habitat diminished by the swollen banks of Lake Bonneville.

As fluctuating glaciers pushed southward and then retreated, canyons like Big and Little Cottonwood were gouged into existence. Spring and summer glacier melt carried an abundance of freshwater into the lake, sometimes sweeping along with it the remains of prehistoric animals that had not lasted through the winter, laying them to rest in shoreline deltas where their fossilized remains are now uncovered and studied in alluvial sediment. For many of Utah’s Ice Age animals, the end of the Pleistocene brought extinction.

Today the ancient shoreline of Lake Bonneville is one of the most distinguishable geological features along the Wasatch front. This “bench”, as it’s now commonly known, is easily identifiable in cities all along the Wasatch and frequently boasts fine homes and even finer views. Which might go to show that lakeside property retains its value whether the lake is still there or not. So as you enjoy a winter hike or cross country ski along a shoreline trail this season, think about Utah’s last Ice Age and how our rich fossil record, with some of earth’s largest land mammals, paints a picture of an even wilder west.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Ru Mahoney.

Credits:
Image1: Courtesy Wikimedia, Mark A. Wilson (Department of Geology, The College of Wooster), Photographer
Image2: Courtesy Wikimedia,as licensed through Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Image3: Courtesy http://wildlife.utah.gov/gsl/history/
Text:     Ru Mahoney, Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon.


Additional Reading:
http://beta.geology.utah.gov/maps-publications/survey-notes/utahs-wildlife-in-the-ice-age-2/

http://esp.cr.msgs.gov/projects/paleo_hyd/paleolakes.shtml

http://serc.carleton.edu/vignettes/collection/37942.html

http://hugefloods.com/Bonneville.html

http://geology.utah.gov/surveynotes/archives/snt42-3.pdf

http://geology.utah.gov/surveynotes/articles/pdf/pleistocene_fossils_42-3.pdf

Wily Coyotes

Audio:  mp3

Coyote Canis latrans
Photo Courtesy & Copyright © 1991
Eric Gese, Photographer

Coyote Canis latrans
Photo Courtesy & Copyright © 1991
Eric Gese, Photographer

In many of the diverse Native American storytelling traditions, the coyote plays the same role over and over: that of the smart, sly trickster. For those who study coyote behavior, this characterization is well deserved. Coyotes are incredibly adaptable creatures – intelligent, observant, curious and well, wily.

Their ability to adjust how they live to fit their circumstances can be seen in almost every aspect of the coyote’s life. For starters, coyotes will eat just about anything. As omnivores and opportunistic feeders, coyotes might be found hunting creatures as diverse as small mammals, birds, snakes, mule deer fawns, insects, or fish, and also seek out grasses, berries and seeds. They can hunt alone or in packs, and are not below feasting on carrion, rummaging through your garbage, or raiding the cantaloupe patch.

The environments in which coyotes can be found are similarly diverse. While once restricted to the American West, coyotes are now widespread across all of North America and parts of Central America, and can be found in nearly every ecosystem from deserts to forests to urban areas from Belize to Alaska.

Sometimes called ‘song dogs’ these social creatures are known for their nighttime solos and choruses. Their scientific name, Canis latrans literally means ‘barking dog’, and their many vocalizations help pack members and families bond and communicate over long distances. Coyotes have strong family ties, especially during spring, when puppies are born to monogamous coyote couples.

Coyotes are territorial and defend their space vigorously – especially when breeding and denning. Mating occurs from January through February and after a gestation period of only 60 to 62 days, 3 to 12 pups are born blind and helpless in March or April. Young coyotes are nursed for 4-5 weeks at which point they transition to regurgitated meals brought by both parents. Youngsters tag along on family hunts at 8 weeks old and are able to hunt independently by fall.

Interestingly, studies have shown that even coyote breeding is adaptable – a phenomenon called ‘density dependent reproduction’. In areas where coyote populations are stable, females bear lower numbers of pups. But in areas where there is disturbance to the population – for example through increased predation or hunting – females have larger litters. On average, newborn pups have less than a 50% chance of surviving to adulthood due to threats from disease, predators, and starvation. It therefore makes sense for females to bear more offspring in areas where threats may be even greater.

To learn more about coyote adaptability, join the Stokes Nature Center for a tour of the USDA/National Wildlife Research Center Predator Research Facility on June 16th. For more information visit www.logannature.org. Thank you to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting the research and development of this Wild About Utah topic.

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.

Credits:
Images: Courtesy and Copyright © Eric Gese
            National Wildlife Research Center, Predator Behavior
and Ecology

Text:     Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon.


Additional Reading:

Stettler, Brett. 2009. Coyote (Canis latrans). Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Wildlife Notebook Series No. 19. Found online at:
http://wildlife.utah.gov/publications/pdf/2010_coyote.pdf

Video: Coyotes Cruise NYC, Science Friday & Mark Weckel, http://www.sciencefriday.com/videos/watch/10444

Pickleweed Spendor

Audio:  mp3

Pickleweed in Cache Valley
Courtesy & Copyright 2010 Linda Kervin

Utah’s mountains and foothills blaze with the brilliant foliar colors of aspens, maples, sumacs and more. But autumn colors can be found in less likely habitats too, even across our flat, desolate salt pans. There the usually drab stage has been given a splash of deep, dusty rose color by its sole botanical performers, the pickleweeds.

Also known as glassworts or samphire, our two species of pickleweed are in the genus Salicornia. They belong to the same plant family as beets, chard and spinach., but you’d never guess that from their appearance. The ankle-high Salicornia’s leaves are reduced to tiny scales that hug the green, branching, cylindrical stems. Pickleweeds are halophytic, or salt loving. Due to their unique physiology, they can thrive in extremely saline environments that kill normal plants. Pickleweed roots filter out some of the salt before it can move into the plant. The remaining excess salt is stored in balloon-like cavities in their cells called vacuoles. When its vacuole is full, a cell ruptures, and newer younger cells continue to accumulate incoming salt.

Pickleweed in Cache Valley
Courtesy & Copyright 2010 Linda Kervin

The common name, pickleweed, derives from the taste of the salt stored in the vacuoles of the succulent, crisp stems. You may be surprised to learn that gourmet websites report that pickleweeds are all the rage in Europe as a salad garnish or pickled vegetable.

[Kevin Colver recording: Songbirds of the Southwestern Canyon Country]

In the Great Basin, winter flocks of Horned Larks forage in the snow for Salicornia’s tiny oil-rich seeds as do other birds. The seeds’ proteins and oils are valuable dietary supplement in the sparse salt pan habitat where the picklweed’s unique physiological adaptations allow them to thrive. If your travels this fall take you by a salt pan, take the time to enjoy the rosy glow of the humble pickleweed or view pictures on the Wild About Utah website.

Pickleweed in Cache Valley
Courtesy & Copyright 2010 Linda Kervin

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.
Credits:

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Linda Kervin

Text: Jim Cane and Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=SALIC

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salicornia_oil

http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=129055

http://people.westminstercollege.edu/faculty/tharrison/gslplaya99/pickleweed.htm