Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah
image Just another fine winter day in the Tooele Valley. (photo courtesy Jay Cooper)

February 2, 2017
Let it snow!

I remember some of my first experiences in this area. My job brought me here from time to time to support owners and their operations in the franchise company I worked for. Heck, I even was sent to the Provo area for a week to become a licensed facilitator with the Stephen Covey organization, and I became licensed to teach “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Usually, my visits this way were during warmer weather. Visits here in the cold were short, and were always followed by a quick dash back to the warmth of Arizona.

When it became apparent that our company was going to make a move this way, we were brought up to visit. It was C-O-L-D! The allure of the area overcame any resistance we had and we made the move. Imagine our dismay when it snowed in June that year — right here in the Tooele Valley. On top of that, earlier in the season, it was very windy. My first real experience “out” in the snow occurred right in the Tooele Walmart parking lot. The high winds blew the snow sideways; it was difficult to walk, and ice film formed on pavement, cars, and trees. I remember turning to Maggie and expressing something like we had made a mistake, since it was apparent this place was essentially a tundra!

When it snowed that June, I worried that we had moved to a locale that had four or five months of warm weather! Gladly, that isn’t the case, but you know the transition from cold to warm come springtime is going to be significantly different from year to year.

When I moved here, snow was snow. It wasn’t until I had the experiences with it that many of you have had, that I realized that there are several nuances to our white winter friend. I now know the difference from powder and heavy, wet snow. I’ve seen what a bit of rain can do to the winter landscape, and how snow that has been walked on or driven over compacts and freezes into hard sheets or chunks when the temps dip after sundown or if the area is in the shade.

Most of us become quite accustomed to snow, and it can lose its wonderment and appeal. In actuality, snow is incredible — not only in its structure and how it delivers, holds and releases moisture, but the beautiful settings it can provide and the recreation it affords. Yep, I get it that it can be downright inconvenient, and in extreme cases, dangerous. Even so, the benefits it brings are pretty impressive!

Snow forms when the right combination of moisture and temperature occurs. A molecule of water freezes around a particle of dust or pollen and quickly forms a hexagonal form. From there, the snowflake goes through a growth process that is infinitely variable. Because moisture, temperature and wind speed are all constantly changing as the flakes are formed, the chance of getting two identical flakes are infinitely small. However, they are similar. It turns out that all snowflakes will be one of 35 types, and eight of those are most common.

How can we be confident that even with these categories snowflakes are unique in their formation, and hence, their appearance? Have we looked at millions (if not trillions!) of flakes, searching for sameness? As you might surmise, attempting to look at them is a short-lived attempt as the flake quickly melts away at the first encounter with warmth or liquid water. While there is special equipment for observing snowflake formation and resultant patterns, only a minuscule portion of all snowflakes have ever been observed. So, why the confidence you and I can live our lives and the snowflakes we do observe will never match each other? Math — pure and simple.

Snowflakes start out as frozen water crystals — six-sided structures — and are comprised of a large amount of crystals adhered (frozen) together. Snowflakes that are visible to the naked eye are technically termed “larger, complex snowflakes.” The number of possibilities of how a snowflake is arranged is so large, it’s almost incomprehensible. A professor of physics at Caltech (Kenneth Libbrecht) gave this illustration to show how large the number is. He asked, “How many ways can you arrange 15 books on your bookshelf?  Well, there’s 15 choices for the first book, 14 for the second, 13 for the third, etc.  Multiply it out and there are over a trillion ways to arrange just 15 books.  With a hundred books, the number of possible arrangements goes up to just under 1 followed by 158 zeros.  That number is about 1070 times larger than the total number of atoms in the entire universe!”

Take a close look at an individual complex snowflake, you’ll see that it’s not too difficult to pick out 50 to 100 different features, all of which could have grown differently. So, the math between the book illustration and snowflake formation is in the same realm. Simply put, the number of ways to form a complex snow crystal (snowflake) is incredibly large. So, it’s almost impossible that any two of them, over the history of the earth, have been completely identical.

There are some seemingly paradoxical things about snow. First, it does have insulating properties. That is because of the spaces in snow that trap air or resist its movement. Many a creature has hunkered down during poor or extremely cold weather in a snow cave. Body heat will be much better preserved than out in the open, and protection from the wind further reduces heat loss, as well as providing a modicum of peacefulness if the wind is raging outside. I even know of some (crazy) guys that relish going “snow camping”, complete with their own snow tunnel and cave. I think I’ll pass — I’m good.

Snow also protects the surface of the soil and grasses by giving protection against drying winter winds, while reducing heat and cold cycles that happen during the day and night. Moisture is also released into the soil slower as the snow melts.

We have observed Amish farms in Ohio that use this slow release of moisture to their benefit. Many of the Amish will use manure spreaders during the winter when the fields are blanketed deeply. This allows them to place the manure on top of the snow, where it will break down while exposed to the open. The resulting nutrients and biomass move down into the soil as the weather warms. As an added benefit, it’s pretty easy to see where you’ve placed manure when the field is bright white instead of earthy brown!

Can it be too cold to snow? In a way. It has a better chance of snowing heavily when it is 15 degrees Fahrenheit or above at or near ground level. If it gets colder than that, snowfall is less likely. But, that’s because it’s too dry, not too cold! Remember, when air is really cold, it can’t hold much moisture.

With all the snowfall we’ve gotten this winter, it will be a glorious spring! Water managers around the state are rejoicing as they anticipate strong runoff in the spring that will fill the reservoirs and charge the state’s aquifers. So, what is the ratio of amount of snowfall to the amount of liquid water that will result?

Like many things in life, the answer is not precise, but there are ranges of outcomes from various packs of snow. A common ratio heard is about 10 inches of snow on the ground will produce about 1 inch of liquid water. Sometimes that is just about right. In reality, it depends if the snow is that famous Utah powder, or if it’s heavy and wet. Another factor is if the snow has partially thawed, condensed, and new snow has been deposited on top. So, if there is lot of moisture in the mix, 3-5 inches of snow may yield that 1 inch. On the other hand, if the snow was formed when it was very cold, it may take up to 15-20 inches of snow per inch of liquid water.

And now you know more about our wintry friend. That’s no snow job.

Jay Cooper can be contacted at jay@dirtfarmerjay.com, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.

Jay Cooper

Garden Spot Columnist at Tooele Transcript Bulletin
Jay Cooper is a new contributing writer for the Garden Spot column. He replaced Diane Sagers, who retired in November 2013 after writing the column for 27 years. Also known as Dirt Farmer Jay, Cooper and his wife have been residents of Erda since 2001 after moving to Utah from Tucson, AZ. A passionate gardener and avid reader of horticultural topics, for several years he has been a member of Utah State University’s Master Gardeners Program, and served as chapter president in 2013. Cooper says Tooele County has an active and vibrant gardening community, and the Garden Spot column will continue to share a wide range of gardening, landscaping, home skills and rural living themes.

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