May 9th, 2013 by

A week ago, many parts of the country experienced an uncharacteristic sight for May Day: snow. A lot of it. And while one’s first instinct might be to bemoan the cold, wet stuff at a time when spring should be in the air, with our changing climate, we may want to appreciate snow while we can, as we might be yearning for more of it in the future.

Washington forest

Credit: Jennifer C./Flickr

Snow and ice play a crucial role in healthy ecosystems — and our own health and prosperity. You see, the more snow in winter, the more water for our rivers and faucets in the spring and summer, as forests and other natural systems keep the snow from melting too quickly, which keeps water flowing throughout the warming seasons into some of our most important watersheds. However, with warming winters, winter snowpack is declining in many parts of the country, and a newly released study reveals that not just water is at stake, but plants and animals, too.

According to a report in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, snow cover creates a life-saving environment for many creatures, which burrow each winter between the frozen ground and the snow, an area known as the subnivium. This area acts as a warm incubator where plants can photosynthesize and wildlife can stay warm during cold, windy winter months, but the researchers reveal that since 1970, the Northern Hemisphere’s snow cover in March and April has decreased by as much as 790.7 million acres. The consequences of a declining subnivium are potentially far-reaching.

Fox

Credit: Temari/Flickr

Study co-author Dr. Benjamin Zuckerberg of the University of Wisconsin-Madison tells Phys.org that the “decay of the subnivium will affect species differently, but be especially consequential for those that lack the plasticity to cope with the loss of the subnivium or that possess insufficient dispersal power to track the retreating range boundary of the subnivium.” In layman’s terms, if wildlife cannot move and adapt with the lack of snow, they may no longer exist and a ripple effect could occur. For instance, if freeze intolerant insects loose the cocoon of warmth that the subnivium provides, they may no longer be around as food for migrating birds.

Cardinal

Credit: Chris Williamson

So what can we do? Well, for starters, we can protect the trees that protect the snow. Our Endangered Western Forests initiative is working on saving whitebark pine, which thrives upon mountaintops at high elevations, where the snow is. It helps provide the shade and protection needed to keep a snowy winter ecosystem intact, but whitebark pine is fighting a battle of its own against insects, disease and more. Hence, our commitment to helping it fight back.

And remember that while it did seem like there were a lot of intense snowstorms this year — there were — intense snowstorms do not necessarily provide all of the snowfall needed in all places. According to the April 30 U.S. Drought Monitor report, in the western U.S., “The largely disappointing water year neared an end, with many areas of the west ending the season with bleak spring runoff prospects and increasing drought concerns.” Oy!