Stoked on Science: Snow place like home

Jade Harvey

Columnist

Please excuse the terrible pun. It’s happened now so we had better move swiftly on. Whilst dealing with the heat and smoke of the raging hot wild fires in the Summer, it’s difficult to imagine our snow capped peaks returning. The cool crisp air and white blanketed landscape always seem to me to arrive so unexpectedly, but return they do. Our mountainous life is defined by winter tire preparation; Parks Canada beginning their firm assault on the avalanche paths that threaten the ways to and from our home and for many, the joy of the skiing or sledding season. Whether you favour the original cross-country skiing tradition, heralding from Scandinavia, that reached Canada in the mid -nineteenth century, the daredevil ski jumping arriving in 1870 or the more modern alpine (introduced 80 years later), or yes ripping around deep pow on your sled (since the 1960s), the snow provides a myriad of enticing activities that override its dangerous properties for many.

Snow is so much more than just an avenue for recreation or an example of natural beauty. It’s a scientific wonder. An accumulation of packed ice crystals, snow is mostly seen as uniformly white. This is because visible light is white. Most of all the visible light striking the snow/ice surface is reflected back – called the albedo effect. Most natural materials absorb some sunlight and preferentially reflect a colour – for example grass reflects green so our eyes interpret it as as green. Snow however does not discriminate, reflecting most of the waves back and thus is seen as white. Unique. If the light has to travel a long distance during the reflection process, i.e light shining onto a thick glacier, the light waves get scattered. The red waves are preferentially absorbed but blue are not. They get reflected still and thus we see blue when we look at glacier ice. Snow can also be influenced by particles or organisms within the snowpack. Whilst undertaking research on glaciers in Iceland I studied the black streaked ‘dirty’ glacier Breiðamerkurjökull – got to love the directness of the Icelandic language – this literally translates as Broad Dirty Iceflow. It is a seriously broad and black, dirty looking glacier. It is streaked with dark volcanic dust or tephra that is being jettisoned though cracks from the base to the surface from old volcanic events, a magnificent sight to behold. In Revelstoke, when I summited Mt. Begbie this summer *what a mountain by the way* I experienced Watermelon Snow for the first time. This coloration is caused by a form of cryophilic or cold loving, fresh water algae that contain a bright red pigment. It blooms in the sunlight of our hot summers causing the glacier ice to look deliciously candy coloured – disclaimer… It is not a good idea to eat pink snow/ice. It’s about as good for you as the yellow variety.

Talking of freshwater, did you know that only 3 per cent of the water on Earth is freshwater and of that 3 per cent nearly 70 per cent is locked up in glaciers and ice caps? This brings me nicely back to the albedo, reflectivity jazz and to the importance of glaciers for global climate. The reasons glaciers and ice caps remain through summer is their ability to reflect most of the sun’s energy and heat that is radiated to Earth. They melt slowly in their lower reaches known as the ablation zone, with an imaginary line called the Equilibrium Line Altitude dividing this part (experiencing net loss in ice mass) with the above part or Accumulation Zone where snowfall accumulates. When temperatures increase or we have a drier winter, glaciers recede, and with their loss of ice mass comes a loss of that amazingly reflective surface. So, the more the glacier melts the faster it then continues to exponentially melt due to the continued loss of shiny surface. This then means that a lot of more of the suns energy gets absorbed by the land, in turn this is reflected into the atmosphere, where greenhouse gases capture it and hold it up there heating up the planet. Whew. So… this is in danger of becoming a rant about climate change but let’s save that topic for a day not so close to the joyful holiday season.

What I really want to solidify is the magnificence of snow. Not just a burden to be shovelled, or surface to be ridden but a real central part of our planet and the cycles that are interconnected across it. It is amazing stuff that I for one am in awe of. It changes constantly and does so much more than I’ve written here; holding information about past climates in its layers, providing drinking water for millions of people on Earth. I do also like to slide on it on my skis so that’s kinda cool too. Happy holidays people and enjoy the snow.

Jade Harvey graduated with a First Class Honours Bachelor of Science in Physical Geography from Queen Mary Univeristy of London, a top five university in Europe. Having spent the last eight years travelling the mountainous regions of the world, mountain guiding and lecturing on science in schools, she now likes to share her passion for science through writing and telling stories at the Regent Hotel.t

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