This winter has been troublesome; a few weeks ago it was so cold my pipes froze, then it we climbed to unseasonably warm temperatures, then some more snow, and now, very cold again-my pipes continue to freeze. One thing that makes me happy is that we have a nice layer of snow on the ground, insulation that is is vital to the survival of many of the plants and small mammals, even microscopic life forms, that are essential parts of our Northern ecosystem. So, for many, the recent snow was welcome relief from the cold.
While the surface seems empty, underneath, at the interface between ground and snow, a veritable city is rising. Old leaves and branches hold the snow up, creating an open space. The ground also radiates heat, warming the overlying snow, which instead of melting sublimates (when a solid turns into a gas without first becoming a liquid) directly into water vapor. Both of these processes leave a space between the snow and the ground, called the subnivean zone.
The word “subnivean” comes from the Latin for under (sub) the snow (nivean) and is a scientific term referring to the open passageways that form under deep snow.
Six or more inches of snow are all that are needed to trap the earth’s heat and allow a subnivean zone to form. This zone remains humid because of the transformation of snow into moist water vapor and is capped by a layer of ice that acts as an insulating roof. The temperature of the subnivean zone is generally a constant 32 degrees, protecting species that would otherwise freeze.
The most common inhabitants of the subnivean are mice and voles — they make tunnels under the snow connecting sleeping areas and sources of food. Red squirrels also burrow into the subnivean to stash food. Entrance holes to these networks allow carbon dioxide to escape. Carbon dioxide is released when these animals breathe and by the ground itself. Without the entrance holes to serve as ventilation shafts, carbon dioxide could build up to lethal levels.
While the subnivean zone provides protection for mice and voles, it is also the hunting ground for the short-tailed weasel (or ermine), a weasel that, except for its black-tipped tail, turns snowy white in the winter. This small weasel, just the right size to live and hunt in the tunnels under the snow, is a major predator upon small rodents.
Recent research has unearthed a whole new category of inhabitants of the subnivean zone — microbes that are proving to be important players in the cycling of both nitrogen and carbon dioxide between the earth and the atmosphere. A deep snowpack with an active subnivean zone appears to encourage a healthy microbial population that, through respiration, releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Studies suggest that as much as half of the carbon taken up by plants in the summer is released back into the atmosphere by microbes in winter (Paul Brooks, University of Colorado Boulder). At the same time these microbes, by processing and storing nitrogen, fertilize the soil as the snow melts.
Without a healthy snowpack, without these snowpack microbes, plants don’t do as well come spring. While these microbes may be releasing a lot of carbon into the atmosphere during the winter, they are also necessary for healthy plant growth — plants that will absorb carbon dioxide throughout the growing season.
For all these reasons, it seems to me, a nice deep snow, serving as an insulating blanket on the earth, is a welcome part of our northern winter.