The Science of Snow: How Ecosystems and Animals Depend on Winter

First Posted: Jan 18, 2016 12:35 PM EST

As winter begins and snow blankets the country, keep in mind that we all depend on snow. Now, we're taking a closer look at the science of winter and how it impacts all of us.

Species from microscopic fungi to 800-pound moose require snow as much as we do. In fact, many animals survive by living in this natural "igloo" while waiting for spring to arrive. Known as the subnivium, this layer beneath the snow is insulated and maintains a constant temperature, which allows animals to survive the winter.

That's now all that snow offers, either. It helps fill reservoirs in the spring in order to help jumpstart new plants. It also can trap nutrients, which then also fertilize plants in the spring.

Yet winter is changing and becoming less like the cold seasons we may remember. The new winter actually has consequences far beyond its season, affecting both spring and summer. It can influence plants' flowering dates, and also species, such as hummingbirds, that depend on precision flowering times for nectar.

"Earlier melt-out allows for an extra three weeks of snow-free conditions," said Tom Painter, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Increased transfer of water from snow to the atmosphere from the warmer snowpack, and transpired water from the uncovered vegetation during those three weeks of no-snow in the basin's mountains, causes the five-percent loss of water from the system."

Winter is extremely important to both animals and their ecosystem. As weather patterns change, though, it's important to calculate exactly what type of effect this will have on snow pack and the ecosystems that rely on it.

The new report can be found on the National Science Foundation's website.

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