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December 18, 2013

It’s time to confess that snow’s benefits outweigh its liabilities

Winter appears to be off to an impressive start. Before the winter solstice even arrived, plunging temperatures and serious snowfalls were reported across the country, including from some places to which many residents had relocated precisely to avoid such climatic nuisances. I suppose that snowbirds may be excused if they complain loudly about how unfair it all is. But I’ve been surprised of late by people who live where such conditions are routine, who are already griping about how sick they are of winter and are wondering when it will end. The only ones cheering are skiers and folk who can’t wait for lakes to harden enough to go ice fishing.

Allow me to put on my contrarian hat and suggest that snow is a good thing and, in the larger scheme of things, more of it is preferable to less.

Consider, for example, all those trees and shrubs in your yard. If you think it uncomfortable being outdoors for a few minutes to retrieve the newspaper or get to work, try standing out there 24/7/365. Sub-freezing temperatures are entirely usual in the northeastern U.S., and if they strike while plants have no “overcoat” of snow, the damage can be lethal. Indeed, one reason so many species thrive in our neck of the woods is precisely because the same snow that we complain of protects them.

Research shows that each inch of snow raises the temperature beneath it by 2 degrees Fahrenheit. So if the air temperature is 12 degrees above zero, and your yard is blanketed by 10 inches of snow, the surface temperature of the ground will be about 32 degrees.

This is so for two reasons. First, snow is dense. Air trapped in it stays pretty-well trapped as long as the snow is undisturbed. And dead air is a fine insulator. Ask anyone who owns a down comforter.

Second, the ground emits heat — residual warmth — that seeps up from the Earth’s core. Dig down four or five feet, even in the dead of winter, and the earth will be about 55 degrees. This is the basis for geothermal heat pumps that, properly designed, can extract enough heat from cold ground water to heat a building. Covered by a heavy blanket of snow, trapped heat prevents the ground from freezing, or freezing as deeply.

Finally, the periodic melting of snow replenishes the moisture that frigid wind sucks from the land. This, too, helps plants to survive. Even trees that go sufficiently dormant in winter to appear “dead,” like oaks and maples, require ground moisture to survive. Deciduous trees are better off than conifers in this regard because bare branches lose less moisture than a pine or spruce. But they all share the same liability: frigid ground devoid of moisture will quickly kill any tree or shrub.

Plants are not alone in benefiting from snow. Animals do as well. Have you even noticed how your house feels warmer when it has a heavy layer of snow on the roof — even if you have a well-ventilated attic? Animals that hibernate, whether for weeks or months, benefit in the same way. Underground dens stay warmer, reducing the amount of stored food (can you say fat?) that a hibernating body consumes to survive. Even animals that remain active, like deer or rabbits, gain some protection by bedding down in snow. They find essential food by digging for plants that remain nutritious partly because they, too, are shielded. A field mouse can spend the entire winter moving about in tunnels burrowed through deep snow.

And then, of course, there’s us. Much as we fret about snow, we’d worry a lot more if melting snow did not help to replenish ground water or freshen rivers and lakes from which we draw drinking water. Most of us, at one time or another, have experienced, even if casually, the effects of drought. We do well to remember that a snowless winter contributes just as much to the misery of dry wells as does the absence of summer rains.

So enough griping. Few of us may be ready to join the paeans of praise that winter sports enthusiasts sing when a blizzard comes browsing. But we ought at least to confess, even if grumpily, that its benefits outweigh its liabilities. In the final analysis, and with apologies to Thomas Tusser (he, who, in 1557, popularized the “April showers to May flowers” adage in a collection of writings titled, “A Hundred Good Points of Husbandry”) those gorgeous spring blossoms probably depend as much on January snow as they do on April rain.

Skinner, a native of Meadville, is chaplain emeritus of Allegheny College and a longtime environmentalist. He can be contacted at

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