As the days get longer and the air warmer, it is hard to think back to the magic of the first snowfall and the anticipation of sledding, skiing, snowshoeing, building forts and snowmen, and romping through piles of fluffy white snow. Snow is very much a part of life in Maine, along with many places around the world.
Snow, as one of the many forms that water can take in the environment, is an important part of the natural world. Just as the fresh water in lakes, rivers, streams, icebergs, glaciers and groundwater is important, all types of precipitation, including snow, are important too.
In the western United States, the snowpack can account for up to 75percent of the region’s surface supply of fresh water (http://nsidc.org/snow/facts.html). Scientists measure the snowpack starting in January to help predict the “spring runoff” and flood potential of an area. (BDN-Eric Russell, March 5-6,2011).
Snow occurs when the temperature of the atmosphere is below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit or 0 degrees Celsius) and moisture (water vapor) is present. Snow is a term for ice crystals, which are frozen molecules of water. A snowflake is the form the ice crystals take as they float through the atmosphere toward to the ground. A snowflake can be one crystal or a group of many crystals. Due to the shape of a water molecule, snowflakes are all hexagonal, or six-sided. However, the temperature and humidity (moisture content) of the air determines the shape of the flake, providing endless possibilities of crystal formation.
Wilson A. Bentley, or “Snowflake” Bentley, a farmer in Jericho, Vt., who lived at the turn of the 20th century, became fascinated with snowflakes through his work in the field of photomicrography, taking pictures through a microscope. In 1885, after years of working with a microscope and bellows camera, Bentley was the first person to photograph a single snowflake successfully. Bentley photographed more than 5,000 snowflakes and became famous worldwide for his discovery that no two snowflakes are the same (http://snowflakebentley.com/bio.htm).
In temperate climates, such as Maine’s, snow is one of the many indicators of the shifting of the seasons. When snow arrives, winter is on its way; when snow leaves, spring is around the corner. Though snow is most common in the northern half of the United States, an average of 105 snowstorms move through the country each year. At least some amount of snow has fallen in every state in recorded history, including southern Florida and the high altitudes of Hawaii. Mauna Loa, the largest volcano in the world, has over 3,000 feet of skiable terrain (http://www.skimountaineer.com/ROF/ROF.php?name=MaunaLoa).
Mainers live in the “Snowbelt” region of the country that stretches across the Great Lakes from Minnesota. This region tends to get the worst of the storms, and often cities such as Buffalo, New York City, Milwaukee and Detroit experience snowfalls that measure in feet.
The top three cities for the greatest snowfall in a single season are Buffalo, which holds the record at 199 inches during the winter of 1976-77; Rochester, N.Y., which is second with 161; and Portland, Maine, with 141 inches (http://inside.org/snow/shovel.html). These cities are particularly susceptible to snow due to their location along the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. The storms are usually “Lake Effect” storms in New York and a good old fashion “Nor’easter” in Maine (http://www.weather.com/encyclopedia/winter/lake.html).
Mainers have many ways to handle snow, including snowplows, snow blowers, and sand and salt. But even with the right preparation and equipment, snowy conditions can cause hazardous travel on roads, cancel air flights and shut down cities for days.
Since the first settlers came here from Europe, traveling in the winter has posed hazards. The first attempts to improve travel were to install ski-like runners on horse carts and coaches. As the populations of cities grew, citizens would go into the streets to level the snow drifts so that the sleigh traffic could move through.
The first patents for snowplows were submitted in the 1840s, but the first snowplow didn’t appear until several years later. The first mention of a plow attached to a cart drawn by horses was in Milwaukee in 1862 (http://nsidc.org/snow/shovel.html). Plows were a big help to city dwellers, but often blocked the side streets and the sidewalks with banks of snow.
Winter recreation is a huge source of income for Maine, which has more than 14,000 miles of snow trail for snowmobiles (http://www.mesnow.com/WherestheSnow.html), 18 alpine ski mountains, and plentiful Nordic ski trails across the state. Aroostook County is home to world-class Nordic ski facilities, and this year Fort Kent and Presque Isle hosted the 2011 Biathalon World Cup, with 240 athletes representing 30 countries.
Aside from recreation, snow brings a tastier benefit to the state. Snow plays an important role in maple syrup production. The season begins in late February and continues into April, as snow is disappearing from the landscape and spring is in the air. However, a good snowfall in the winter can insulate the ground enough to prevent the soil from freezing too deep, allowing roots to draw in more moisture and produce more sap.Snow also keeps the forest temperature from warming too quickly and hampering sap production (http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/03/05/1028013/snow-helps-and-hampers-maple-syrup.html).
Article written by Joanne DeFilipp Alex, Northern Maine Geography Awareness coordinator for the National Geograpic Society, with support from the Maine Geographic Alliance.
• • •
National Snow and Ice Data Center: http://nsidc.org/snow/
Wilson A. Bentley: http://snowflakebentley.com/bio.htm
Snow Crystal resources: http://www.its.caltech.edu/~atomic/snowcrystals/
DownEast article on 2011 Biathalon World Cup: http://www.downeast.com/node/22153
“Officials brace for possible flooding”, Eric Russell, BDN Edition, March 5-6,2011
Snow and Maple syrup production: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/03/05/1028013/snow-helps-and-hampers-maple-syrup.html
Snowmobile, ME: http://www.mesnow.com/WherestheSnow.html
Ski Information: http://www.skimaine.com/
Use the News:
Find articles related to snow. What was the main topic of the article? Was it about storms, recreation, products related to snow, or issues about snow in general? Are there ads related to snow or items associated with snow in today’s paper? If places were mentioned, find the location on a map. Were they located in the “Snowbelt” region?
- Locate the places mentioned in the article on a map.
- What is the southernmost city in the US to report sea level snowfall? (Homestead, Fla.)
- There are many different types of winter storms. Look up these storms: Eastern Rockies, lake effect, Nor’easter, Pacific Coast, Great Plains and upsloping. How did they come by their names? How does the geography of the land help to create the storms?
- Which state is home to the snowiest cities in the United States? (New York: Syracuse averages 115 inches of snow per year, and Rochester averages 93 inches per year.)
- The Great Lakes create a lake effect. There is one other large lake in western United States that also causes lake effect snow. What is it? (Great Salt Lake)
- In the Midwest and West, Salt Lake City, Utah; Anchorage, Alaska; and Denver, Colo., each have received around a 100 inches or more in their record high seasons. Locate these cities on a map.What type of winter storms do you think they have?
With all this talk of snow, Monty decided to visit the snowiest place on Earth. He packed up his hiking gear and headed to the fifth oldest National Park in the United States, also home to the tallest volcano, fifth largest mountain peak and largest glacier in the contiguous United States. The largest snowfall in recorded history occurred here during the winter of 1971-72, when 1,122 inches (or 93.5 feet) of snow fell.
Answer: Paradise, Wash., in Mount Rainier National Park, elevation 5,400 feet. (http://www.nps.gov/mora/faqs.htm)