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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rocky Mountain Rollercoaster

Welcome to Springtime in the Rocky Mountains.  This is the time when spring taunts us with warm weather, then dumps a foot of snow on our budding tulips.  When we feel the nearly insatiable itch to pack up the snow boots and shovels and bust out the galoshes and spades.  It's a frustrating, tough time of year.

And we love to complain about it.

However, the snowfall we get in the spring is massively critical for our western ecosystems.  Dennis Knight, retired now from the University of Wyoming's Botany department, wrote in his book Mountains and Plains: The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes about the importance of snowfall in the spring.  Though he doesn't mention it makes people crabby and morose, he does explain:

"Rain that occurs during warm periods may evaoprate quickly, sometimes even before it can infiltrate the soil.  ... In contrast, snow usually accumulates during the winter, when evaporation is minimal.  In the spring, when accumulated snow melts during a short period when the potential for evapotransiration (ET) is low.  Consequently, the water is more likely to penetrate deeply into the soil."

Prairie ecosystems, with plants characterized by deep root systems, rely on slow, drawn-out (and somewhat annoying) melt water from snow - not just from rain - for maximum water uptake.  

Drought is massively prevalent throughout the country, and very noticeable in the mountain west where forest fires result.  So we can either complain about drought, or complain about snow in spring, but not both.

I think there's a quote about cake that would fit here.

Anyway, summer is just around the corner, and we'll all be ready for it!

Written by Brenna Marsicek, Biodiversity Institute

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