Have faith, spring will come
Nature's Notebook – Tim Abbott
February, 17, 2011
This memorable winter of deep cold and heavy snowfall has entered that wearying stage where most of us are desperate for the inevitable thaw and the onset of spring.
I certainly am done with ice dams and the labyrinth of piled snow I must negotiate just to squeeze out of my driveway.
Still, there are a number of ecological benefits from such a winter, and those who lived on the land before the age of central heating and the internal combustion engine endured far worse.
Last weekend, I happened to be in the Highlands Region of New Jersey, and stopped off at the site of the Revolutionary War encampment outside of Morristown, where in 1779-1780 Washington’s Continental Army endured a winter of misery that makes Valley Forge look like a mild inconvenience.
Connecticut Private Joseph Plumb Martin wrote of that winter, “We were absolutely, literally starved. I do solemnly declare that I did not put a single morsel of victuals into my mouth for four days and as many nights, except a little black birch bark which I gnawed off a stick of wood, if that can be called victuals.”
There were at least 24 snowfalls that winter, and for a number of weeks the men lived in tents with mere rags for clothing while they hewed the forest to make cabins for shelter. The winter was so cold that New York Harbor froze solid until the last week of February, allowing mounted raiding parties to cross over to New Jersey from British-held Manhattan and Staten Island.
Gen. Nathaniel Greene wrote that, “Almost all the wild beasts of the field, and the birds of the air, have perished with the cold.” There is often increased wildlife mortality during hard winters, and I would expect that this one will be no exception.
Nevertheless, there are more factors at work in wildlife population dynamics than the effects of a cold winter with deep snow.
Consider small rodents such as deer mice, that rely on stores of seeds and nuts to survive the winter. Depending on whether last fall experienced heavy acorn production, one might expect their numbers to decrease with limited access to food. Fewer deer mice mean fewer vectors for the spread of Lyme disease, but also less food for their predators.
I watched a deer floundering in the Housatonic River last week; it was having difficulty climbing out to the bank, because of all the ice and high water.
Deep snow can impact deer mortality, though it is unlikely to make a significant dent in their overall population density in our region, with so much edge habitat for them to exploit.
They will browse more heavily in the shrub layer of our forests, avoiding unpalatable plants like the invasive Japanese barberry and favoring our native plants. One often finds beech saplings cropped to the shape and size of small bushes after a hard winter.
On the other hand, a deep freeze and heavy snow will increase mortality of some insect pests including certain species that plague our gardens as well as some that are parasitic in our forests, such as the hemlock woolly adelgid.
The greatest benefit of all the snow pack, though, is that it creates melt water for recharging our aquifers and the base flow of our headwater streams.
This benefit is compromised, however, when the snow melt comes from impervious surfaces, including roads and parking lots, that transfer pollutants to our waterways.
This is a particular concern this year, with the state Department of Environmental Protection now providing municipalities with “some flexibility to dispose of snow in salt water and certain waterways if all options for upland storage or other disposal methods have been exhausted.” All that snow has to go somewhere, but there will be environmental trade-offs as a result.
As a Revolutionary War reenactor who has been known to stand out in the snow in cocked hat and buckled shoes, I am deeply grateful that I do not have to endure the conditions experienced in 1780 by Private Martin and the ragged Continentals at Morristown.
As a naturalist, I know that the bit of birch bark Martin resorted to chewing may not have curbed his hunger, but eating enough of it might have helped him ward off scurvy.
This is cold comfort, to be sure. But today the temperature has climbed into the 40s, and for a short while at least, the ice will melt and the snow will soften.
Somewhere in our snowbound swamps, skunk cabbage flowers are warming through the ice. I travel home in daylight now, and so I take the long view, and put my faith in spring.
Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at greensleeves.typepad.com.
© Copyright 2011 by TCExtra.com
Top of Page
Email this article
Printer friendly page