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
Beyond snowflakes and icicles, frozen water can behave in surprising ways. For example, during very cold snaps, lakes can appear to steam like a sauna bath.
As Colorado State University atmospheric scientist Scott Denning 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.
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.
2. How Road Salt Tames Ice
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, salt doesn't melt ice.
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 Julie Pollock, 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.
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.
3. Why Trees Need Snow
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 Andrew Reinmann and Pamela Templer have found that winter snow cover acts like a blanket, protecting tree roots and soil organisms from the cold.
In experimental forest plots where Reinmann and Templer removed snow from the ground, they have observed that
"…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."
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.
4. Frozen Reservoirs
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— Laura Cunningham (@Laura Cunningham)1559786481.0
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 already observing "snow droughts."
Adrienne Marshall 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.
"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."
Snowpack is also melting earlier in the spring, which means less water is available in summer. These changes are affecting cities, farms, forests, wildlife and the outdoor recreation industry across the West year-round.
5. Can We Make It Snow?
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 cloud-seeding — adding particles to the atmosphere that are thought to serve as artificial ice crystals, promoting the formation of snow.
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 Jeffrey French and Sarah Tessendorf.
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.
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.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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