The Beast From the East has been sweeping the streets of Durham, bringing with it not only the perfect conditions for snowball fights and sledging, but also the excuse to skip that 9am all the way over on the science site.
For many of us, this is the most snow we have seen in years, and it might seem a little strange that during the rise of global warming, we are getting such snow in what is now March.
So what are the environmental effects of snow?
The importance of the ecology of snow has been recognized by science since at least the beginning of the 20th century. However, even today many observations remain anecdotal. In the 1950s, Gjaerevoll analysed the way in which the alpine plant community structure was shaped by snow. Within the past decade, snow manipulation experiments have explored the effects of snow depth and snow-cover duration on plant communities and ecosystem processes. Recently, models of snow cover have been applied to ecological problems.
Covering an average of 17–18 million square miles of the world each year, snow cover’s large-scale contribution to the climate system is helping balance Earth’s energy budget. Snow cover reflects about 80 to 90% of the sun’s energy back into the atmosphere allowing it to help regulate the exchange of heat between the Earth’s surface and the atmosphere, thereby cooling the planet.
In addition to helping keep the atmosphere cool, snow cover also helps keep the ground warm. Working like an insulating blanket, snow cover holds heat in the ground beneath it and prevents ground moisture from evaporating into the atmosphere. Under just one foot of snow, soil and organisms can be protected from changes in the air temperature above.
Because changes in snow cover can severely impact Earth’s environment and ecosystems as well as people’s access to water resources, scientists continuously measure how much of the planet is covered by snow. In the long term, this record will help scientists understand how snow cover and Earth’s climate are changing, and in the short-term, it can help water resources managers assess and plan for each spring’s snowmelt.
When thought about like this, the snow we are currently experiencing seems less like an apocalyptic, end-of-term showdown, and more a reminder of the clever ways in which nature works and the way in which the world adapts to survive.