I love snow! It began when I was old enough to know the difference, and has continued since. We kids always celebrated the first snow of the year at our home in northern Wisconsin. We waded through it, ate it, made snow angels, looked for the most beautiful snowflake, dug snow caves, and waited for a warm up so we could make snowballs, snow people, and snow forts. Once it got deep enough, we broke out the 6-person toboggan and trudged up the biggest hill we could find. And we couldn’t imagine a Christmas without snow!
When we moved to Cache Valley Utah 34 years ago, I was delighted to learn of its superb snow, reminiscent of N. Wisconsin. Further, I learned of its life and death importance for wildlife. Too much, or too little could spell doom for many of our critters. In a heavy snow year, our deer fawn crop may take a major hit- up to 80% mortality, while small mammals can thrive. Snow is an excellent insulator when deep enough- 8 inches or so will maintain a subnivean (beneath the snow) temperature of 32 degrees when the ambient temperatures plunge well below zero above. Further, they are better protected from predators. Too little snow tells a reverse story- great for predators, but disastrous for their prey.
Snow isn’t just snow. According to those who live in the high latitudes- Eskimos, Siberians, and Scandinavians, they have between 180 and 300 words for different types of snow. As a skier, I have a few myself- powder, crusty, gropple, corn snow, and slush. I’m sure you can guess which of these I prefer.
Utah is world renowned for its extraordinary, low moisture powder- less than 8% water. You’re basically skiing on air. I’m aware of only one other location that beats us- Japan’s Hokkaido mountains with only 4% water content.
Another element of snowfall for the Wasatch front results from the very large lake to our west. Thanks to the Great Salt Lake, our snowfall gets a considerable boost from latent heat and added moisture from this great lake. Additionally, airborne salt particles enhance the formation of snow producing clouds.
I must share an extremely strange and rare phenomenon referred to as “thundersnow”. While skiing the North Ogden bench many years ago, an approaching ominous cloud delivered lightning and thunder, shaking the ground enough to bring up swarms of worms to the snow surface. It took a double take to realize what I was witnessing!
Another strange snow phenomenon is an avalanche. This once soft, pliable medium instantly transformed to cement as the avalanche settles. The friction of sliding snow removes the snowflake crystalline structure, changing it from fluff to a high-density medium. The friction generated heat melts it enough to form the deadly tomb that has encased many.
As the Great Salt Lake shrinks from stream diversions and a warming climate, combined with a dwindling winter season, I cannot help but wonder what will become of our indispensable mountain snowpack, essential for Utah’s water supply and our winter recreation.
Jack Greene for the Bridgerland Audubon Sociey, and I’m wild about Utah’s Snow!
Images: Courtesy NOAA, Mark Stacey, Photographer (2011)
Audio: Contains Audio Courtesy and Copyright Friend Weller
Text: Jack Greene, USU Sustainability and Bridgerland Audubon Society
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