Snow Pack

It seems, during the 31 years I have lived in or near the Olympic Peninsula, that in the fall there are always articles worrying about the year’s predicted snowfall, claims that the snow pack, which supports water supplies for lowland urban residents, will be lower this year because of increasing warmth, climate change, global warming. These fears are real, and, twice, were borne out – there have been two years when the snow pack was very very thin at the end of March, when seasonal melting generally begins. One of those years, 1991, I chose to hike the Skyline Tail in the southern Olympics, and had the snow pack been normal I’d not have made it, become lost up high. But that year there was virtually no snow.

The pattern seems to be this – there is a final warm Indian summer week or two in early to mid October and then the rains begin, which become snow up high. Several times there is enough snow to open ski areas by Thanksgiving week in the Cascades, Mt. Baker, Crystal Mountain, Stevens Pass, and, on the Olympics, there is deep snow as well.  However, then it seems, usually in the January-February time frame, that snowfall nearly ceases, and by the end of February there are, again, stories and articles predicting drought, lack of snow, lack of water, climate doom.

Then March comes. And, nearly every single March, a ton of snow falls, tons and tons,  often well into April up high, feet on feet of snow, replenishing the snow pack such that by the end of the snow season there is usually sufficient snow cover to make it through the summer. Cliff Maas wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, pointing out that the average snow pack depth and supply had not changed much over thirty years, and, from this occasional hiker’s perspective, that is correct.

Some times there is enough snow to delay opening the road out to Obstruction Point in the Olympics, which is usually plowed free by mid June, and usually before July 4th weekend. A few times the road has not been cleared until late July, and once, maybe 15 years ago, not until the first week of August. It seems that this year will be one of these “late” years, as the current snow pack is 135 percent of “normal” and with a coolish spring predicted likely to last well into the summer.

So, up high, above say 3500 feet in the Olympics, the ground and plant life is covered with snow from mid to late October all the way until June or July, and, higher still, even into August. This means that there are 90 to 120 days only when the ground is bare and exposed to sunlight, and during this incredibly short time the entire life and reproductive cycle for plants and many animals must occur – budding, flowering, seeding. There are these little tarns up high which hold little frogs, and somehow these frogs emerge from beneath the chill and snow and mate, bear eggs, the eggs hatch, tadpoles swim, and become frogs – all in three months before the next snows fall.  If you’re up there during that time – and this is the time most people get up there – it is impossible not to notice the productivity of the plant life, the flowers, the blooms, the insects and birds and marmots and mice and voles, all filled with life, energy, making the most of the short, SHORT season. I have to believe that on a per acre basis the productivity up there in the sunlight and warm winds is as high as any rain forest.

Then, after that Indian summer week of hot sun, still air, heat, and the meadows bright red with the coming cold time, it rains and, up high, snows, the ground is covered and the eight to nine month sleep begins again.

I wonder, too, does the eight to nine month snow cover essentially freeze time up high such that anything deposited up there effectively ages at one third to one quarter speed? A few years ag someone found a woven basket melted beneath snow up toward the end of Obstruction Point Road. It was dated and found to be 2700 years old.

What else might lie up there?


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