Snowshoes and Adaptations

Snowshoes and Adaptations: Receiving Instructions in Snowshoeing Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Receiving Instructions in Snowshoeing
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
“No, no, no!”

“Don’t try to help me up yet,” I instructed, choking back laughter through a face full of snow.

Third graders teetered in their snowshoes on the edge of the tree well with mixed emotions written on their faces—equal parts concern and confusion. I was sunk to my armpits in snow, insisting that they not help me out of it. The learning had begun.

Snowshoes and Adaptations: Stomping a flat, hard-pack clearing into the deep snow Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Stomping a flat, hard-pack clearing into the deep snow
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
We were in the trees, high in the canyon, there to discuss the winter adaptations of local wildlife while an inch an hour of fresh powder fell from above. I had stepped onto a shallow layer of snow that covered a spruce sapling just as I was explaining the similarities between the snowshoes on our boots and the feet of the snowshoe hare. The timing was impeccable.

“I guess we’re not as good as the snowshoe hare,” one student quipped as a flurry of helpful hands and a borrowed ski pole finally freed me from the hole.

Snowshoes and Adaptations: Stomping a flat, hard-pack clearing into the deep snow Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Stomping a flat, hard-pack clearing into the deep snow
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
“No, I guess not,” was my reply. “So how do we survive here, then?”
Snow continued to fall while students offered up their hypotheses: “We have tools, like coats and snowshoes and ski poles”; “we help each other, like a community!” “We don’t have special body parts, so we have to try new things to survive.”

Someone mentioned “structural adaptations.” A familiar murmur of agreement as someone used another science term, “behavioral adaptations,” language maybe once thought too complex for 9-year-olds. But it was language students had developed over the course of a few months closely studying the wildlife of Utah—language they were putting to work now, constructing new understandings of the world in real time.

Snowshoes and Adaptations: Enjoying the Snow, Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Enjoying the Snow,
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
We needed to keep moving, so my colleague and co-wilderness-guide for the day introduced the kids to another behavioral adaptation used by herds of deer. Minutes later, 13 energetic bodies were performing the mule deer “snow dance,” stomping a flat, hard-pack clearing into the deep snow. “No more post-holing,” he told the kids. He let the new vocabulary word sink in while we rested and ate a snack, much like a mule deer might.

As a matter of state law, the Utah State Board of Education expects third graders to, quote, “Engage in argument from evidence that in a particular habitat…some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all” (UT SEEd Standards, 3.2.5, 2019).

Snowshoes and Adaptations: Our Class The Joy of Teaching Outdoors Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Our Class
The Joy of Teaching Outdoors
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Learning outdoors helps students connect academic content to lived experiences in real time. These students certainly had an argument to make as to how well-prepared an animal needs to be in order to survive a mountain winter. They lived the experiences themselves.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy and Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Audio: Includes audio from Josh Boling
Text: Josh Boling, 2020,

Sources & Additional Reading

Boling, Josh, Why I Teach Outside, Wild About Utah, November 11, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/why-i-teach-outside/

Strand, Holly, Shoeshoe Hare, Wild About Utah, November 18, 2010, https://wildaboututah.org/snowshoe-hare/

Best Snow

Click to view larger image of a skier at Brian Head, Photo Courtesy USDA Forest Service
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:

Snowflakes

A free-falling snow crystal photographed as it fell on Alta Ski Area on March 6, 2011, Photo Courtesy & Copyright Tim Garrett, University of Utah
A free-falling snow crystal
photographed as it fell
Alta Ski Area on March 6, 2011
Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2011
Tim Garrett, University of Utah
Alta Snowflake Showcase

Snowflake, Photo Courtesy and Copyright A free-falling snow crystal
photographed as it fell
Alta Ski Area
March 6, 2011
Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2011
Tim Garrett, University of Utah
Alta Snowflake Showcase

A stellar dendrite snow crystal, Photo Courtesy and Copyright Kenneth Libbrecht, Caltech University, SnowCrystals.com A stellar dendrite snow crystal Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Kenneth Libbrecht, Caltech University
SnowCrystals.com

A stellar dendrite snow crystal, Photo Courtesy and Copyright Kenneth Libbrecht, Caltech University, SnowCrystals.com A stellar dendrite snow crystal Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Kenneth Libbrecht, Caltech University
SnowCrystals.com

A hexagonal plate snow crystal, Photo Courtesy and Copyright Kenneth Libbrecht, Caltech University, SnowCrystals.com A hexagonal plate snow crystal Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Kenneth Libbrecht, Caltech University
SnowCrystals.com

As winter draws to a close, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the amazing weather phenomenon that is a snowflake. When winter weather dumps inches of snow on us, it’s easy to overlook the tiny works of art, those intricate and delicate snowflakes, which make up the storm.

Snowflakes – or to use a more scientific term, snow crystals – come in a variety of different shapes including long, thin needles, flat hexagonal plates, columns, and irregularly-shaped pellets called graupel. The International Snow Classification System recognizes ten different shapes in all, only one of which is the traditional snowflake image. The classic six-armed snowflake shape is called a ‘stellar dendrite’ by scientists.

When teaching programs about snow, someone inevitably asks me, “Is it really true that no two snowflakes are alike?” As far as I can tell, the answer is, well, ‘maybe’, and here’s why.

Three things are needed to form these intricate crystals, and the first two are fairly obvious: water, and temperatures below freezing. The third item is a little more inconspicuous. Water cannot condense and freeze all on its own. Every snowflake needs a piece of atmospheric dust or salt at its core. This particle is referred to as a ‘nucleating agent,’ and it attracts water molecules which then condense and begin to freeze. From there, a snowflake’s overall shape is determined by a number of other variables including the atmospheric temperature, the amount of available moisture, wind speed, and mid-air collisions with other snowflakes.

To add more complexity, consider that each individual snowflake contains somewhere on the order of 10 quintillion water molecules. That’s ten with eighteen zeros behind it. While the way these molecules bind to each other is dictated by the laws of physics, the sheer number of ways in which 10 quintillion water molecules can arrange themselves as they freeze into place is mind boggling. But then again, how many snowflakes do you think fall in the typical March snowstorm in Utah? A lot. One scientist has estimated that the number of individual snowflakes that have fallen on Earth in the planet’s history is ten with 34 zeros behind it. In all of those snowflakes is it possible that two are exactly alike? Yeah, maybe… but good luck finding them!

For more information and some beautiful snowflake photographs, please visit our website at www.wildaboututah.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:

Photos: Courtesy Tim Garrett, University of Utah,
Kenneth Libbrecht, Caltech University
Text: Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center

Additional Reading:

Halfpenny, J.C and Ozanne, R.D. 1989. Winter: An Ecological Handbook. Boulder, CO: Johnson Books, http://www.amazon.com/Winter-Ecological-Handbook-James-Halfpenny/dp/1555660363

Gosnell, Mariana. 2007. Ice: the Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, http://www.amazon.com/Ice-Nature-History-Astonishing-Substance/dp/0679426086

Libbrecht, Kenneth .1999. A Snowflake Primer: the basic facts about snowflakes and snow crystals. http://www.its.caltech.edu/~atomic/snowcrystals/primer
/primer.htm

 

 

 

Best Snow

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: