Nature Detective Notes: Late January

Buon giorno mi amici!!

If I had a letter to describe what I have observed over the past few weeks, it would be “S”:

Snow!! (more of it)


Song!! (birdsong, of course)

While many in the mid-Atlantic up through the New York metropolitan area are still digging out pine grove 1987from an unprecedented snow storm (over 24 inches in spots), we New Englanders are enjoying a little fresh powder AND…..the amazing sunshine!! While sitting outside in our garage yesterday, basking in the sun, I was inspired to focus on these topics.

Sssssssso, how are these topics—Snow, Sun, and Song—all connected in some way??  Let’s have a look:

SUN!! We have gained over 30 minutes of daylight in the afternoon and at least 10 minutes in the morning since the beginning of January. With the sun now rising at around 7:05 am, and setting close to 4:50 pm, the days are getting noticeably longer as the Earth tilts its axis “closer” to the sun.  It’s certainly a warmer, brighter sun than what we had a few weeks ago, and will only get better for us “sun lovers” as we get into February. If you are concerned about skin exposure, make sure you get that sunscreen out. But why even consider this in the first place?…..

SNOW!! These ice crystals formed in the clouds (through condensation) do a number of things when the reach the lower levels of the atmosphere.

  • Evaporate, especially in very dry air coming from northwest (continental Polar air from central Canada), like what happened January 22-24; Hence, one reason we didn’t get as much as the more humid, mid-Atlantic
  • Melt and/or Re-Freeze as they fall through layers of air with varying temperatures, thus causing a cold rain to fall OR compacted, “ice covered” flakes called graupel (“corn snow” up in VT), bouncing off the ground like ping-pong balls
  • Combine and interlink with other snow crystals, AND accumulate on surfaces as they fall; The colder the air, the more surfaces will cool off and allow this accumulation to occur, AND before you know it, you have a lovely surface of fresh fallen snow that is incredibly reflective, especially on those sunny days from January through March (or April, if you’re a Spring skier);  THIS is a “property of snow” called Albedo, or the percentage of insolation (Incoming Solar Radiation) which is reflected off of a surface, in this case, new-fallen snow;  According to winter ecologists, James C. Halfpenny and Roy Douglas Ozanne (authors of Winter: An Ecological Handbook, and one of my favorite texts to refer to during this time of year), you need to have a fundamental understanding of the way in which snow “bends like warm tar, absorbs heat, reflects incoming solar radiation, insulates, and much more” in order to understand HOW it affects the plants and animals that need to find coping mechanisms for survival during WINTER (We humans are included in this bit as well); Here are some other Properties of Snow you all might want to look into:
    • Density
    • Age—the longer snow is on the ground (exposed to the wind, sun, other forms of precipitation, and the melt-freeze cycles that accompany it) the more dense it will become AND the less reflective it will be; so it is white as a wedding dress one day, tarnished as the pages of an old book the next day
    • Plasticity—Melting of snow within the snow pack causes liquid water to flow, then freeze, flow, then freeze, causing this unique feature; In teaching these concepts to kids over the years, having an understanding of the difference between adhesion and cohesion (both of WATER) goes a long way
    • Thermal Conductivity—low for Snow, therefore it is a great insulator
    • Absorption—of Incoming Solar Radiation, being much better with new fallen snow versus nasty, salty, dirty, wind-driven, compacted snow
    • Attenuation—reduction of “detectable” Incoming Solar Radiation

There is sooooo much to learn with regard to SNOW (and the Winter)!

Now you’re probably wondering, “How long will this snow be on the ground this year?”  Meteorologists and Climatologists have put their heads together to give a best guess regarding the next 90 days plus.  Here, again, are some links you can refer to:

Predictions, merely predictions.  No “practically snowless” winter this year (like 2011-2012), yet no “Snowmageddon” like last year either in our area.  In any case, the snow is not on the ground long, especially in an El Nino year like this, where we’re in a pattern of accumulation, melting, accumulation, melting; even down in the mid-Atlantic where there is a good deal of snow on the ground presently (24 inches plus).  That’s where the “melt-freeze cycles” really come into play, although with the considerably warmer weather they’ll be having (50’s Tuesday-Thursday), much of the snow pack will “ripen”, leaving behind the dregs.

One thing to keep in mind related to this vast amounts of snow pack, there is a “refrigerating effect” that snow has.  The more that is on the ground, the colder and more humid a particular area will remain during the overnight hours AND even into the day.  So if you’re planning a trip to D.C. this week, don’t be surprised if the night-time temperatures approximate ours (teens to low 20’s during late January-early February).

Use your imagination here!

SUN-Part deux: “As the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger,” is an old, New England snow trail along wall 1986 William Mercersaying from years past and usually holds true for at least the first part of February; that’s according to David Ludlam, author of the 1990’s edition, The Vermont Weatherbook.  He says, “by the second half of February, the worst of Winter’s sting is over and soon, the ‘Snow Kingdom’ will be in retreat.”  And I would add that although February is generally the snowiest month of the year (we broke records in 2015), it’s one of the best times to be outside enjoying the Winter season!  Just keep in mind how much melting-freezing is going on around buildings, driveways, and on roads, so as not to slip and fall or spin out. And, while you’re enjoying the fresh powder and scents of the season (the snow and the earth beneath), have a listen for ….

BIRD SONG!! Here are a few of our feathered friends that are beginning to sing in earnest now: Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Blue Jays. Here are a few others we’ll be hearing by mid-February, if you don’t hear them now: House Finches, Cardinal, Pine Siskin, Carolina Wren (although you tend to hear them year round), and Great-horned Owl.

Don’t let those subterranean homesick blues get you down this Winter. Be well, get outside, enjoy these warmer days, and keep those eyes-ears-hands to the skies and noses to the ground!!


Michael Acciavatti…Instep Nonstop

Nature Detective Notes by Michael Acciavatti. Michael is our full-time teacher naturalist who often heads out on the trails to stretch his legs and observe what is happening. His enthusiasm and knowledge make for wonderful updates about the nature of Moose Hill.

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