Vail Daily column: Life below the snow
Vail, CO Colorado
Colorado is known for its distinct seasons – the rush of runoff in spring, summer lightning storms above tree line, vibrant fall colors, and unforgettable skiing in the winter. The supranivean environment, what we see above the snow, is what makes Colorado memorable in the winter for most people, but there is also a world of activity underneath the snow. This subnivean, or below the snow, environment allows for many creatures to survive the winter while we play on top.
Walking outside after a fresh snow, the world around us seems still and quiet. If you look closer though, you will begin to see evidence of a very busy community of organisms. Footprints, fallen bark or pinecones, and scat are some of the most obvious signs of winter life. What we don’t see is the bustle of animal activity beneath the snow as pocket gophers, ermine, insects, voles, and mice fight for survival. These animals use the cover of snow as protection from predators and as a blanket of warmth from chilly air temperatures. The insulating power of snow can keep the subnivean temperature, between the soil and snow, at about 32 degrees Fahrenheit even if the air temperature above is below freezing. This insulation is crucial for organisms that are actively foraging for food over winter instead of migrating or hibernating.
The snow is not always consistent, though. In fact, it is continuously changing. Sublimation, the melting of solid snow crystals straight into water vapor within the snowpack, is a unique and important process in the settling and metamorphosis of snow. Depending on the depth and density of the snowpack at any given time because of sublimation, the subnivean temperature can vary. This is an extra challenge that many winter organisms must combat. But the varying temperatures have an upside; as the snowpack evaporates upwards from the ground, it creates a space beneath the snow but above ground that animals can travel easily along. This allows for a whole network of passageways where animals hide, hunt, and forage throughout the winter.
Other animals, such as ptarmigan, use the snow as a winter home. These birds burrow into the snow, their body heat melting the walls of their shelter, which then refreezes, creating a pocket of air warmed by their body heat. This allows them to hide and wait out the coldest and snowiest days of winter.
Because of its unique metamorphosis, binding, and insulating qualities, snow can be taken advantage of as shelters not only for animals, but also for humans. Some adventurous winter campers build snow caves and Quin-zhees to sleep in, but this is only suggested if you are traveling with people who are experienced with such structures. The snow sets a fun and vital stage for our winter activities and those of local animals. Keep your eyes open for these hidden creatures on your next adventure.
Participate in The Longevity Project
The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.
Rose Delles is an educator at the Walking Mountains Science Center. She is looking forward to the accumulation of more snow to practice her Quin-zhee-making skills.