Books

New book digs into snow’s role in American history

“Snow: A History of the World’s Most Fascinating Flake” by Anthony R. Wood

Prometheus Books, 2021, 256 pages, $24.95.

Snow came early in Fairbanks this year and stuck. But it wasn’t much, and since then we haven’t had a lot more. Anchorage, meanwhile, was nearly shut down by a snowstorm recently. And a friend from Homer reports that more than enough has fallen there these past few days and it needs to stop. I’d be happy if the Kenai could send some our way for the sake of our trails. But I have to admit I’ve been glad not to clear the driveway once yet this season.

Alaskans have a complicated relationship with snow. It’s one of the reasons why many of us live here, and also one of the reasons many of us flee south for winter vacations. We love it, we hate it, and we can’t imagine life without it.

Anthony Wood isn’t an Alaskan. But as a lifelong resident of the Eastern Seaboard, he’s seen his share of snow. As a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a city that snow can hit hard and heavily, he’s written about it for decades. “Snow” is the title of his new book, a muddled but charmingly written volume with the somewhat deceptive subtitle of “A History of the World’s Most Fascinating Flake.”

That subtitle is a bit of a misnomer because the book isn’t a truly comprehensive history of snow, which has impacted human settlement patterns since the last ice age. And in the 5,500 years or so of recorded history, it’s altered the course of empires. Just ask any Western European tyrant who ever sent armies eastward with winter approaching.

Wood’s history of snow is American, however, so it begins in the colonial era. Settlers from England arrived on these shores expecting to find a milder climate than the one they left behind. This made sense. New England is significantly closer to the equator than Britain. Thus colonists were shocked to find themselves buried in the heavy storms that hit the region every winter.

It would be centuries before the Atlantic Gulf Stream would be discovered, explaining why much of northern Europe generally misses out on the worst winter weather. But as the colonies evolved into states, snow came to be seen as a gift, not a hindrance. In the decades before the Industrial Revolution arrived in America, winter snows made travel much easier than it was in summer. As any Alaskan knows, once trails are broken in, they quickly become highways.

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The glorious age of sleigh travel ended with the invention of motorized transportation. Trains and trolleys allowed for the growth of cities and creation of suburbs. They worked wonderfully until the snow flew. Wood shows readers how keeping mass transit moving made snow removal a necessity in urban areas. New York City’s famed subway, we learn here, was built partly to overcome this annual problem.

Snow in the East is heavy, and in the past century, the recreational opportunities it provides became enormous economic engines. But as the nation expanded westward, snow proved to be a necessity. While the East Coast isn’t lacking for water, much of the West is, and life itself is dependent on the yearly snowpack in the mountains. Wood takes readers to Reno in the early 20th century, where James Church devised the first scientific methods of snow measurement in the nearby mountains, a crucial step toward long-term water management.

Wood meanders about quite a bit, and the book bogs down as he shifts between topics. The history here is more episodic than linear. In one chapter he details how ski resorts evolved on the East Coast, and how snowmaking machines were invented. Elsewhere he focuses on a late winter storm in 1888 that clobbered rapidly modernizing New York City and snow became the enemy of urban convenience.

Prior to the 20th century, snowstorms struck without warning, and the need to predict them was one of the driving forces in the development of weather forecasting as a science. It’s a science everyone has questioned at some point in their lives. Meteorologists can be right more than 99% of the time, but when they’re wrong we all tend to wonder if they know what they’re doing.

They do, of course, but they’ll always make errors. As Wood writes, “The atmosphere is what scientists call a nonlinear chaotic system, which is putting it mildly.” Simply stated, the atmosphere can be likened to an enormous body of water, larger by far than all the earth’s oceans combined. It is impossible to measure all that is happening and account for every possible variability.

Wood’s explanation of what a single snowflake endures as it travels through that atmosphere on its way to ground level makes the odyssey of a spawning salmon seem simple. You might be shoveling 3 feet of snow, but for every flake in your driveway, there are millions that were lost along the way. Be thankful.

Wood evokes sympathy for weather forecasters as he explains why predicted megastorms sometimes fail to materialize, or worse, slam cities despite assurances of dry streets. A predicted snow dump can lead to a run on supermarkets and the shutting down of events. When the storm veers 50 miles north, forecasters get blamed, even though in global terms, 50 miles is a fractional miss.

The emphasis on weather forecasting sends this book off track in its second half as Wood documents the rise of rivals AccuWeather and the Weather Channel. It’s a fascinating tale of corporate intrigue, but has little to do with the history of snow.

There are other tangents that make this book an occasionally frustrating read, a surprising lapse for a veteran reporter who should know how to stick with the story. But the tangents are interesting. And while the history here is provincial, Wood makes his case that snow has been a key driver of American history. As we alternately pine for more snow in Alaska, and then curse it when it hampers daily life, this book reminds us that our response is nothing new.

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