I have friends who seem positively grateful that we have had so little snow this winter, but I am not one of them. I lived through too many “brown winters” in Texas to not be aware of the aesthetic beauty of a fresh snowfall. But, there are also some significant ecological benefits of snow.
For example, snow is an excellent insulator. A layer of snow will prevent the soil beneath it from freezing too deeply to the great benefit of the roots of many perennial plants. Also, the snow layer will buffer against the repetitive cycles of a soil’s freezing and thawing that can “frost heave” shallow rooting plants right up out of the ground. The snow cover also generates an important crawl space and refuge for insects and small mammals just above the soil surface. This “subnivian space” is important for many winter active species and is described in an essay out on our Virtual Nature Trail.
The snow cover further benefits plants in two very significant ways. It represents a water reservoir that very slowly and very effectively delivers soil moisture to the early growing plants of the spring. The snow also contains a surprising amount of plant useable nitrogen that has been gathered from the atmosphere during the snowfalls. As the snow melts in the spring, this nitrogen is immediately available to the early sprouting plants and is very important in their growth.
So, snow Is a hassle sometimes. Our cars get stuck in it, shovelfuls get heavy and so on, but our gardens, yards, and wild places greatly benefit from its presence.
On a more “spring-like” topic: this morning I heard and this afternoon I saw my first robins of the season. These warm sunny days are drawing the flocks out of their relatively close winter hideouts and are stimulating them to spread out across the wet, earthworm rich yards and fields. This afternoon there were about a dozen robins spread out across my neighbor’s yard. They cackled to each other as they hopped about one eye glued to the soil surface in front of them. It was not a good day to be an earthworm!
It did feel like spring while I was watching them!