Monthly Archives: February 2013

Season of Firsts

As the last day of February dawned in central Vermont, I awoke to a wonderland. Every dark branch of every tree was heaped with two or three inches of new, wet snow. The snow coated roofs, cars, the sidewalk, but thankfully not the road. As the temperature warmed above freezing, the snow started falling quickly from the branches, leading to a second snowstorm after the light snow that passed through last night. Soon the snow was gone, the branches went back to their normal bleak winter configuration, and the trees awaited the warming days of spring.

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Spring here is both a gradual affair and a series of abrupt steps. A few weeks ago, during a day of cutting frigid wind, i looked up for the first time and noticed a swelling in red maple buds. Even before the temperatures had started to change, the increasingly long days had encouraged the buds to swell subtly. It was the first first in a season of firsts.

This winter was an odd one. Overall, it was a bit milder than average, but in reality it was an exercise in extremes. Brief warm thaws with rain alternated with stretches of several days that mostly remained below zero. One stretch didn’t get above the mid teens for a whole week. But the sun’s stay each day has lengthened, and this shows itself in many signs – not just the swelling buds, but snow that melts when it hits the ground, temperatures that pop above freezing most days, a drive home from work with the sun still in the sky.

Many firsts are to follow in the next three months. I saw a cardinal the other day. They don’t all leave Vermont in the winter, but they tend to lay low. Soon, for the first time this season, I will hear their “pew! pew! pew!” call that reminds me of a toy laser gun. Robins will reappear in greater numbers, and chickadees, and then more birds. I’ll hear the first honk of returning Canada geese (not all leave the state, but those who are traveling seem to have a more wistful call than the yearlong residents). The first salamander will emerge from hibernation to breed in vernal pools during the first heavy nighttime spring rain on thawed ground. Other salamanders, frogs, and toads will follow. Around this time I will get the first taste of this year’s maple syrup, and will hear the first calls of the spring peepers and wood frogs. The first crocuses will pop up around homes, and soon after the spring ephemeral wildflowers will pop forth in the woods. We will experience the first warm rain that is accompanied by a rumble of thunder. It’s not until May that the maples burst forth with new leaves. The new leaves are pink, and while they are less vibrant than fall leaves, they offer their own sort of seasonal color. The first leaves to emerge are from aspen trees, and the first of these that emerge are in the Champlain Valley. Later Montpelier’s trees will leaf out. Lastly, extending into June, the wave of pink and then green will race up the slopes of the Green Mountains until the paper birch growing amidst the spruce and fir of Camel’s Hump and Mount Mansfield finally burst forth with new leaves.

There are lasts, too. The last sticking snow. The last remains of the melting snow piles. The last day that remains entirely below freezing. The last icicle. The last day of skiing. Some of the lasts won’t be identifiable until well after the fact. It is an odd characteristic of life and time that the firsts are gifts that are well evident, but the lasts are often not realized until well after the fact. For that reason it is necessary to pause to appreciate the beauty of each snow and each formation of ice. Everything else too, for that matter. There are some firsts that are also lasts.

Sadly, there are also firsts that are not gifts. The snow piles along the roads and parking lots store whatever is tossed within them, and when the thaw comes, such desirables as dog poop, general road dirtiness, and motor oil emerge from their slumber. Today I found this sheen of oil on a puddle near a snowbank, and the slow flow of the water led to these odd formations. I thought they looked like intestines.

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Sadly, this water was pouring straight into the drain, which presumably then dumps into the Winooski River. A rain garden or other constructed or natural wetland would allow this water to be filtered naturally, perhaps removing the oil. Instead, it is bound for Lake Champlain. Winter gives us a break from worrying about the fate of urban runoff, but the lost time is made up in the mad watery slushy rush of spring.

Tracking Winter’s Sloppiest Storms

Vermont is entering the later days of winter… a period Matt Sutkoski recently called the ‘dog days of winter‘. After a fairly quiescent, hazy few days, we picked up several inches of snow.

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It’s not quite time for mud season or maple syrup season yet, but it is coming. In the mean time, the warming air to the south is continuing to battle with the cold air to the north, as is customary in this part of the world… but as temperatures warm slightly, instead of just snow we pick up very sloppy storms.

This is called graupel, or soft hail:

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It forms when it is a bit too warm for fluffy snowflakes. The snowflakes freeze together into little tiny snowballs that look like packaging peanuts.

We also picked up some wet snow on a calm night – the kind of snow that sticks to every possible surface. The next morning was beautiful.

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It’s also often been cold enough for more classic snowflakes:

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Snow, graupel, rain, freezing rain, drizzle, freezing drizzle, and sleet are all common as winter moves towards spring. Lately this has been happening a bit earlier than in the past, due to the warming climate. This winter seemed to have an unusual number of thaws, though it also had one extended frigid period and several nights that reached -15F or colder.

It can be hard to track the movements of different sorts of precipitation. Normal radar doesn’t distinguish between rain, snow, and in between precipitation types. The Intellicast radar has a pretty effective algorithm for finding rain, snow, and mix, apparently based on reported temperatures and elevation. It is usually rather accurate. However, the pink area between the rain and the snow can consist of just about everything. Recently a very neat type of radar called dual-polarization radar has been installed in many parts of the US. It can detect the difference between rain, snow, and hail, and can even detect airborne debris from tornadoes! This new radar can be hard to find online but I use the RadarScope app on my iPhone which works very well (but isn’t free). There are other options as well. Unfortunately because radar beams angle upward, returns from more distant locations are coming from higher in the cloud, which is often experiencing snow when areas on the ground are not.

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Recently NOAA rolled out a very intriguing project, called PING – Precipitation Identification Near the Ground. This project allows people to report the type of precipitation they observe, using their computer or smartphone. the result is very neat maps that in some more populated areas actually seem more accurate than radar. If people keep using the app, it will only get better. Next time you are experiencing winter slop, check it out and see what people are reporting around you?

For those of you in the desert, where people are few and far between and rain and snow are rare, you may not see much use for this website. Of course, the smell of rain will be enough to tell you when it is on the way.

Nemo and the Naming of Winter Storms

Last Saturday we went for a long cross country ski in Marshfield. There were about nine inches of new snow on the ground, and the air was frigid. A stiff wind wound through the bare branches of birch trees, and whirred through the needles of pine and spruce. There is something eerie and hollow about a cold wind… its incredible how different the winds on cold midwinter days sound compared with summer breezes. I found a line from Tolkien (and the Hobbit movie trailer) stuck in my head as I lagged behind my friends and gazed into the slate-gray sky…

The pines were roaring on the height,
The winds were moaning in the night

There was no dragon churning up the winds in the high branches, but the winds were responding to another nearly mythical being of sorts, as air barreled towards a massive strengthening nor’easter along the coast, one of the strongest and snowiest on record. A storm some had named Nemo, and others have left nameless, though far from unnoticed.

We’ve named hurricanes for a long time. I’ve heard that the modern practice began when an Australian TV weatherman named a tropical cyclone after an ex he was not on good terms with. All tropical storms, hurricanes, typhoons, tropical cyclones, etc now get names.

This winter the Weather Channel has started naming winter storms, but the National Weather Service has not joined in the practice. Nemo is not named after the cute Disney fish, but after a character from Greek mythology. Still, some feel that it is a bit silly, or a form of unnecessary attention grabbing, for the Weather Channel to name storms. The thing is, hurricanes for the most part are singular entities. They form, strengthen, meander about, and then eventually dissipate or are absorbed by another storm. Winter storms are a bit harder to pin down. They are known for splitting in two, crumbling into disarray, and merging with each other. “Nemo”, in fact, formed when a storm from the west and a storm from the south merged. I’m not sure if both were Nemo, or if only the combined storm was Nemo. Were the previous storms Nemo’s Egg and Nemo’s Sperm? As if this wasn’t confusing enough, in Connecticut the blizzard was also named Charlotte. Apparently the snowfall was Charlotte but the wind was Nemo? If anyone reading this knows the story, let me know!

The logistics of merging winter storms is confusing. Do pacific storms that mostly drop rain get names? What about lake effect snows, which are formed by cold wind blowing over a relatively warm lake? Would we give these indistinct events names, or would we name individual snow bands, ie. “Snow Band Edward”? Upslope snow, caused by moist air blowing into mountains and rising, is much the same. If we had quite a few storms merging at once could they form Winter Storm Voltron? And if we are naming storms, why not name high pressure areas too? It is these that bring extreme cold blasts. What about Dust devils? Individual thunderstorms? Santa Ana Winds? (We do already name the fires associated with these winds…)

On the other hand, naming storms gives people an anchor point, something to talk about, a way to distinguish storms from one another. Indeed nor’easters do sometimes seem like huge monsters or mythical beings. And, I once had quite a soft spot for The Weather Channel. When I was a lonely, nerdy little kid, before there was an Internet, I used to watch it for hours. It was nerdy, silly, a bit ‘indie’ in its way… but like so many other things, when it got big it seemed to change… just like Nemo ingesting an Alberta Clipper and a southern storm, the Weather Channel has morphed into something huge and bizarre. Loud hype and awful ‘reenactments’ of people hiding from tornados. And the remaining initial ‘heart’ (after the loss of John Hope) behind the Weather Channel Jim Cantore, still out in the storms, getting excited about thundersnow. i wonder if he saw any of the thundersnow in Nemo…

So I guess the storm names are OK, as long as they don’t start naming the storms after advertisers. I suppose that would backfire anyway… who wants to be named after something that kills many people and destroys whole cities? I did notice that 350.org was advocating naming storms after oil companies because of the possible link between global warming and more intense storms… but I don’t really want to hear about Hurricane Exxon.

Of course, as with all names, these names are tools for humans. The storms don’t care, and if they could choose a name, I’m guessing it would sound a lot like the wind whistling through frozen pine needles in midwinter… like gritty snowflakes nudging a jacket, or the silence of a feeble midwinter sun spilling yellow, unwarming light on a snowdrift. The storms have been rolling up the New England coast since long before there was a New England, and will continue to do so after we are gone.

Ice Jams in Vermont Rivers

A few weeks ago I made a post comparing harsh subzero cold to the heat of a desert summer day. There was one other parallel I didn’t mention. When the desert does get rare rain, it is often in the form of downpours which spawn flash floods that are among the most incredible and destructive spectacles of nature.

Oddly, there is a parallel to this in Vermont’s winter landscape as well: ice jam floods.

Ice can get very thick on the slow moving parts of rivers – sometimes more than a foot thick. When a midwinter or spring thaw brings rain and snowmelt, the rivers rise much faster than a layer of foot thick ice can melt. Instead it is ripped from the surface of the river, often violently. The river rages downstream carrying a wall of rock-hard ice. The ice re-collects where there are obstructions or bends in the river’s path, backing up water that can raise many feet in a few minutes. This process can also happen when a river is quickly freezing, by the same mechanism. Often both happen at the same time – a midwinter thaw with rain raises the level of rivers, then a cold front drops temperatures well below freezing, causing the ice jams to freeze in their new position.

Try as I might I haven’t been able to catch one in action yet, though I did catch the aftermath of a small ice jam that formed in Montpelier last week. Unlike past ice jams in Montpelier, this one didn’t harm anyone, except possibly one beaver.

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Those huge sheets of ice on the Winooski River were heaved up there during the ice jam. They will probably remain there until spring thaw.

This ice started breaking up but wasn’t totally ripped free:

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That’s a place you don’t want to walk on the ice!

Here, a small ice jam froze in place on the North Branch of the Winooski:
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The temperature had dropped like a rock, and with it the water level. Ice just upstream had formed when the river was running high, and as the river level dropped the ice was collapsing after it lost the support of the water beneath, even as we watched. Sadly it happened too quickly to get a video.

When the next thaw comes, perhaps the main spring thaw, this ice jam will become ‘active’ again.

More ice continues to form:
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after the latest thaw it has been below freezing add at times below zero. The massive nor’easter heading towards Boston probably won’t hit us quite as hard, but we can still expect maybe 6 to 10 inches of snow here, with more storms to come. Winter certainly isn’t over!

Ice jams can be destructive to homes and dangerous to people near the river, but they are a natural part of winters in cold areas. In fact, the scouring of the ice creates open areas along the river that offer habitat for rare plants that need lots of sunlight, sunning space for turtles, and great swimming and bathing spot for humans. Ice jams are only harmful if you are in their way. As is the case with other flood-related issues, if we give the rivers just a bit of space, they will have plenty of room to move their ice without bothering us. Unfortunately, Vermont’s villages, most of them founded as mill towns, are often very close to rivers. Ice jams are likely to continue to be a problem as well as a spectacle in Vermont.