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Science

Snow-starved Alaska abnormal -- and deadly for some critters

  • Author: Ned Rozell
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published November 28, 2014

FAIRBANKS -- During the first 21 days of November 2014, no recordable snow fell in Anchorage, Juneau or Fairbanks. Over an unusual swath of the state, the ground was frozen, dusty and brown. Many parts of Alaska were in a snow drought.

"No manual observation site has even had 10 inches of snow this month, including the usually snowy places on the south slope of the Alaska Range or northern Southeast," said Rick Thoman, a go-to weather history guy with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. "The North Slope is the only area with even remotely close to normal snow."

The lack of white that represents Alaska at its most common (much of the state is snow-covered for three-quarters of the year) affects many things.

Trouble for cranberries, wood frogs

Some far-north life has adapted to depend on that blanket of snow. Low-bush cranberries and wood frogs can both survive cold air, but each would die in a winter without snow. UAF plant person Pat Holloway once found cranberry bushes perish when exposed to air colder than minus-12 F. UAF's Brian Barnes found wood frogs can survive to minus-10 but also cannot take a prolonged hit of minus-40 air.

Bearberry, yellowjackets, voles and dozens of other species survive in Alaska and other northern places because of dependable snow cover. Each lovely flake joins spiked arms with others to create an air-trapping matrix above the ground. Those who have measured that zone, like Geophysical Institute Professor Emeritus Carl Benson, have found the ground beneath the white blanket remains a consistent 27 degrees F no matter the temperature above.

That relative warmth, the remnants of summer's heat released as the ground freezes, allows billions of small bodies to survive winter.

Supercooler

Snow-assisted organisms like frogs, wasps and berry bushes are supercoolers. A supercooler has developed the remarkable ability to rid fluids in its body of impurities that trigger ice formation.

Some have taken cold adaptation a step farther. Many trees and some spiders that hang out in them are freeze tolerant. Northern aspens and beetles have the superhuman ability to force liquid out of their cells. That dryness prevents spikes of ice from puncturing cell walls (which happens when we get frostbite).

As I write, snow is spiraling in airy clumps to the ground for the first time in weeks. It is dusting the spruce, cheering the mood and freshening a dour landscape. Listening to the hiss of frozen water disguised as fluff, one wonders if a vole can feel the warming, and sense a return to the most-familiar season.

Ned Rozell is a science writer for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute. Used with permission.

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