The Importance of Snow

Written by Jeff Veglahn
    Wednesday, 14 February 2018
The Importance of Snow

Midway through February and we finally have a “Wisconsin Winter”! I don’t know about you, but this time of year is one of the reasons why I love living in Wisconsin. Whether I’m sledding, cross-country skiing, or snowshoeing, I make sure to get outside, along with my dog, when the snow builds up! Not only does the snow make winter more enjoyable, it also helps absorb sound and reflect light to make the whole landscape quieter and brighter.

Not only does the snow make winter months more enjoyable (or tolerable, depending on your point-of-view), it also is very beneficial for ecosystems.

Snow, and more importantly snowmelt, is vital for replenishing local rivers, lakes, and sub terrain water tables. Snow cover helps protect low growing plants (and the roots of larger shrubs and trees) from extreme temperature swings and from drying out in the cold dry air. Snowy winter months are also very beneficial for native woodland and prairie seed to germinate the following spring - when (most) native seeds are developed, they are in a state of dormancy to protect them from germinating, or growing, before weather conditions are ideal. When the seed is laying on the ground, the snow, and subsequent freezing and thawing, softens the seed coat allowing the cotyledons (the first leaves to emerge from the seed) to break through. If the seed coat isn’t softened, then the seed won’t germinate in the spring. When we here at the Urban Ecology Center propagate native seed, we use a process called stratification, which is a method of putting a seed through a “winter environment” in a controlled setting. You can learn more about stratification by joining us at any of our ROOT volunteer times!

Snowy Trees

Winter snow also helps protect small mammals from predators. Small mammals, such as mice, voles, and shrews, live in this subnivean world where they create tunnels to navigate this winter wonderland to find food and create nests. These tunnel systems are formed in a variety of ways. One way is by snow falling on leaf litter, vegetation, or roots that physically hold up the snow off the ground, another is through sublimation, when solid snow particles change into a moist gas from the warmth of the ground, which creates a small ice “roof.” These small mammals will then take these naturally created tunnels and expand them and create entrance/exit holes. As the snow melts, look closely for these little tunnel systems!

Photo Credit: Jeff Veglahn, Three Bridges Park

Jeff Veglahn

Jeff Veglahn

Jeff was born and raised in La Crosse, Wis. enjoying what the Mississippi River and wetlands had to offer. He received a B.S. in Ecology from Winona State University in Winona, Minn. After graduating in 2009, he and his wife moved here to Milwaukee. Jeff was hired here at the Urban Ecology Center as the Seasonal Land Steward at Riverside Park in 2011. In January of 2013, he started as the permanent Land Steward for the Menomonee Valley branch. His favorite activities include cooking (eating), fishing, and exploring personal faith based disciplines.

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