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This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation's archives.
As cold weather settles in across North America, some communities have already started up their snowplows, while others keep watchful eyes on the forecast. Snow and ice can wreck travel plans, but they also play important ecological roles. And frozen water can take amazing forms. For days when all talk turns to winter weather, we spotlight these five stories from our archives.
1. The Strange Forms Water Can Take<p>Beyond snowflakes and icicles, <a href="https://theconversation.com/steaming-lakes-and-thundersnow-4-questions-answered-about-weird-winter-weather-110936" target="_blank">frozen water can behave in surprising ways</a>. For example, during very cold snaps, lakes can appear to steam like a sauna bath.</p><p>As Colorado State University atmospheric scientist <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=M8R-NhQAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Scott Denning</a> explains, this happens because the liquid water in the lake can't be colder than the freezing point — about 32 degrees Fahrenheit. As water evaporates from the relatively warm lake into the cold dry air, it condenses from vapor (gaseous water) to tiny droplets of water in the air, which look like steam.</p><p>When it gets extremely cold, ice can form on the ocean's surface. Waves break it up, so the water starts to look like an undulating slurpee. "For anyone willing to brave the cold, it's wild to stand by the shore and watch the smoking slushy sea with its slow-motion surf," Denning writes.</p>
2. How Road Salt Tames Ice<p>When a big storm is forecast, utility trucks often will head out to pre-treat streets and highways, typically spraying rock salt or saltwater solutions. But contrary to popular belief, <a href="https://theconversation.com/salt-doesnt-melt-ice-heres-how-it-actually-makes-winter-streets-safe-110870" target="_blank">salt doesn't melt ice</a>.</p><p>Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, but mixing it with salt lowers its freezing point. "The salt impedes the ability of the water molecules to form solid ice crystals," explains <a href="https://chemistry.richmond.edu/faculty/jpollock/" target="_blank">Julie Pollock</a>, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Richmond. "The degree of freezing point depression depends on how salty the solution is." When dry salt is spread on ice, it relies on the sun or the friction of car tires to melt the ice, then keeps it from re-freezing.</p><p>Pulses of salt can harm plants, water bodies and aquatic organisms when it washes off of roads — especially during spring runoff, which can carry huge doses. Researchers are working to find more benign options, and are currently studying additives including molasses and beet juice.</p>
3. Why Trees Need Snow<p>Snow may seem like nothing but trouble, especially if you have to shovel it. But it's also a valuable resource. In the Northeast, environmental scientists <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=gS_YYI8AAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Andrew Reinmann</a> and <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=LQRn9ccAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Pamela Templer</a> have found that winter snow cover <a href="https://theconversation.com/climate-change-is-shrinking-winter-snowpack-which-harms-northeast-forests-year-round-103410" target="_blank">acts like a blanket</a>, protecting tree roots and soil organisms from the cold.</p><p>In experimental forest plots where Reinmann and Templer removed snow from the ground, they have observed that</p><blockquote>"…frost penetrates a foot or more down into the soil, while it rarely extends more than two inches deep in nearby reference plots with unaltered snowpack. And just as freeze-thaw cycles create potholes in city streets, soil freezing abrades and kills tree roots and damages those that survive."<br></blockquote><p>Climate change is shortening northeast winters and decreasing snowfall, with serious effects on forests. "Losing snowpack can reduce forest growth, carbon sequestration and nutrient retention, which will have important implications for climate change and air and water quality all year-round," Reinmann and Templer predict.</p><span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f2103debd516dacfa28999766a123d16"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/sPd4PaY9Ds4?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
4. Frozen Reservoirs<p>Snow is even more valuable in western states, where many communities get large shares of their drinking water from snowpack that lingers at high altitudes well into the warm months. Here, too, warming winters mean less snow, and scientists are <a href="https://theconversation.com/climate-change-will-mean-more-multiyear-snow-droughts-in-the-west-121406" target="_blank">already observing "snow droughts</a>."</p><p><a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=NpvW4oYAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Adrienne Marshall</a> a research fellow studying hydrology and climate change at the University of Idaho, defines a snow drought as a year with snowpack so low that historically it would only happen once every four years or less.</p><p>"Today, back-to-back snow droughts in the western U.S. occur around 7% of the time," she writes. "By mid-century, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, our results predict that multiyear snow droughts will occur in 42% of years on average."</p><p>Snowpack is also melting earlier in the spring, which means less water is available in summer. These changes are affecting cities, farms, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/forests" rel="noopener noreferrer">forests</a>, wildlife and the outdoor recreation industry across the West year-round.</p><div id="37ac0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="A6KVZL1577291178"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1136452989642727424" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Today’s #snowpack on Montgomery Pk in northern White Mtns CA, seen from down in Benton Valley. Very good snow for J… https://t.co/PrFvN50V7G</div> — Laura Cunningham (@Laura Cunningham)<a href="https://twitter.com/PaleoLaura/statuses/1136452989642727424">1559786481.0</a></blockquote></div>
5. Can We Make It Snow?<p>If nature doesn't deliver as much snow as we need, what about helping it along? Many western states and agencies have tried to do just that for years by <a href="https://theconversation.com/does-cloud-seeding-work-scientists-watch-ice-crystals-grow-inside-clouds-to-find-out-90903" target="_blank">cloud-seeding</a> — adding particles to the atmosphere that are thought to serve as artificial ice crystals, promoting the formation of snow.</p><p>There's just one hitch: No one has proved it actually works. Nonetheless, "Western states need water, and many decision-makers believe that cloud seeding can be a cost-effective way to produce it," write atmospheric scientists <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=rHjhWTUAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Jeffrey French</a> and <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=T1CgJmQAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Sarah Tessendorf</a>.</p><p>In a 2018 study, French, Tessendorf and colleagues used new computer modeling tools and advanced radar to see whether they could detect ice crystals forming on silver iodide particles injected into clouds. They hung imaging probes from the wings of research planes, which flew in and out of the seeded areas of clouds. Sure enough, in those zones ice crystal formation increased by hundreds, leading to the formation of snow. No such results occurred in non-seeded regions.</p><p>More research is needed to see whether cloud seeding can change water balances over large areas. And ultimately, even if that proves to be true, another question will remain: Whether it's worth the cost.</p>
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The lakefront city of Erie, Pa. has been inundated by several feet of snow this week, “shattering many records," the National Weather Service said.
The historic storm—a whopping 62.9 inches since Dec. 23, with more flakes to come—prompted the city's police department to declare a “Snow Emergency" due to dangerous and impassable roads.
New research shows that the Alaska Range receives an average of 18 feet of snow per year—that's more than double the average of eight feet per year from 1600-1840.
The likely culprit, according to researchers from Dartmouth College, the University of Maine and the University of New Hampshire, is none other than climate change.
Chicago—a city well known for its windy and snowy winters—is experiencing some unusually warm weather. For the first time in 146 years, there was no documented snow on the ground in January and February, according to the local National Weather Service.
Chicago's about to do something its never done in 146 years of record keeping: go the entire months of Jan & Feb with no snow on the ground.— NWS Chicago (@NWS Chicago)1488146197.0
January and February are usually the coldest months of the year. As NBC News noted, the city usually averages more than 40 inches of snow per winter and prepares for months to handle with the onslaught of snow with its fleet of snow plows and salt trucks that service more than 280 snow routes.
But the last measurable day of snow was on Christmas Day when two inches covered the ground. In fact, from Feb. 17-22, Chicago set new winter records with six consecutive days of temperatures in the high 60s to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Flowers are even emerging in some areas, and that's not a good thing. Early blossoms could wilt before they can be pollinated or could be vulnerable to frost if the temperatures should drop, which would be devastating for fruit growers.
While many Chicagoans were probably very happy to skip out on shoveling sidewalks for these past two months, some worry that the freak weather is related to climate change.
"This is occurring against a backdrop of a changing climate," WGN-TV meteorologist Tom Skilling told the Chicago Tribune. "I think the door is open to additional unusual weather events as we go forward."
Is Climate Change to Blame for February's Record-Breaking Heat? https://t.co/5MioCbBr9P @beyondzeronews @Climate_Rescue— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1488105303.0
Chicago is not alone in seeing bizarre winter weather. Meteorologists have seen dozens of heat records broken across the U.S. in February. In Oklahoma, temperatures hit a record 99 degrees Fahrenheit, more than 40 degrees above the average February high. Texas, Kansas and Colorado also recorded all-time highs.
Other climate scientists also say that warm temperatures and snow-droughts such as these could be due to natural weather variances that have nothing to do with climate change.
That said, the National Weather Service forecasts a slight chance of snow in Chicago this Thursday as severe thunderstorms are expected to move through Illinois this week.