Bonnyvale Environmental Education Centre

Parent Express, January 2013: Second Nature

Snow Snow Snow

What will this winter bring?  Will we get a lot of snow this year or just a little?   The amount of snow and the character of the snow influences the activities and interactions of animals and plants each winter.  

The first snowfall draws us outside to marvel at a quiet world being covered with a white blanket.  Snow provides us with a whole range of fun winter activities from sledding and skiing to tracking animals and snow crystal watching.  

Maybe you have heard that no two snowflakes are the same.  Many snowflakes are similar in form, but each snowflake is unique in their intricate structure.  Wilson A. Bentley from Jericho, Vermont, was the first to photograph snowflakes as he marveled at their variety and beauty.  

Taking a closer look at snow crystals opens up a world of discovery with each snowfall.  Snow crystal formation is influenced by the temperature and humidity of the air in which the crystal forms.

Snow begins with a nucleus of dust or salt attracting molecules of water from the cloud.  If the temperature of the cloud is between 32 and -39 degrees Fahrenheit as the water molecules accumulate, ice crystals will form.  

Needle-like crystals are the most common type of snow crystal.  Hexagonal plate (6 sided flat) crystals are only a small proportion of all the snowflakes in a storm.  If the air is warm with a lot of moisture, stellar (6 pointed star) crystals can form.  If the air is cold with little moisture, small column crystals can form.

As a crystal grows it begins to fall and may collide with other crystals and pass through different atmospheric conditions.  This can result in complex crystals that combine different crystal formations.  

When the snow crystals have fallen they tend to change into similar ice granules.  But the crystal type will influence how the snow sticks together, accumulates, compacts, or drifts around.  

Snow transforms our forests.  For animals living on the edge between life and death, snow adds another element to their struggle.  Snow can freeze or warm, feed or starve, trap or free animals.  

Snow provides cover for the busy little mice and meadow voles.  They’re able to forage for seeds and bark out of sight from hawks and owls.  The deeper the snow, the greater their realm under the snow is.  

The great horned owl uses its keen sense of hearing to locate mice hidden beneath the snow.  The owl dives, punches its big feet through the snow, and gropes around to find the mouse hopefully trapped under caved in snow.  

If the snow is deep and soft, a red fox won’t be able to trot as it usually does.  The fox will have to bound through the deep snow, using up more energy in search of food.  

Deer with their long skinny legs also have trouble walking through deep snow, especially if a hard crust forms on the surface.  In the winter, deer will take shelter in evergreen forests where a good portion of a snowfall is held up in the tree branches above.  

The snowshoe hare is well adapted to snow with its large hairy feet and a white winter coat.  As the snow gets deeper the hare is able to reach higher branches, increasing the plant buds available to eat.  

Snow creates a warm blanket over those below.  During the day the suns rays penetrate and warm the snow.  The snow creates an insulating layer, protecting sleeping animals, insects and plants from cold winds and low air temperatures.  

Ruffed grouse will dive into the snow to sleep through the night, warm beneath the snow.  But if the surface snow turns into a hard crust overnight, they could get trapped there.

These are just a few of the ways snow interacts with the lives of winter creatures.  Are you like a chipmunk, hiding and eating in your warm winter home?  Or are you like an otter, out bounding and sliding as you travel the winter land?

Taking a closer look at snowflakes

The children’s book, Snowflake Bentley, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrated by Mary Azarian, tells the story of Wilson A. Bentley and his discovery of the beauty and variety in snowflakes.  

Opportunities with BEEC this January:

Nature Play – Tuesdays 3:30-5:00pm for Grades 1-4.

Tracking: Following a Trail – Sunday 1/6 1:00-3:30pm for all ages.

Play Days – Mon 1/21 & Tues 1/22, 9am-3pm for Grades 1-4.

Visit or call 802-257-5785 for more information.