Where is All the Snow — and What Does it Mean for Local Wildlife?

Wawayanda State Park. Credit Vladimir Dinets

This winter, we haven’t seen major snowstorms in West Orange so far, and I assume most adults are happy about safer driving and a lack of school cancellations. Is this year’s weather an exception or part of a trend, and what are the consequences?

Annual temperatures (winter temperatures in particular), annual precipitation, and the number of snowstorms have all been rising here for over a century. It seems contradictory, but there is science behind it. Warmer air can hold more moisture; longer ice-free periods in the Arctic mean that cold air spilling into New Jersey from the north is wetter than before; general disruption of atmospheric patterns caused by warming creates mechanisms for extreme weather events, such as the dreaded Polar Vortex. So, this winter might be an exception. Or it might be that the warming has progressed to the point when snowstorms will mostly turn into rainstorms. Only the future will tell.

One important thing to point out is that more snowstorms don’t necessarily mean more snow. In fact, snowpack in New Jersey is now thinner. It survives for only a few weeks per winter, and warm spells alternating with cold waves turn it into ice. Last year, in many forests of New Jersey there were more than ten inches of nearly solid ice by March.

A Jefferson salamander. Credit: Vladimir Dinet

This is a disaster for our native plants and animals. Snow is an insulating blanket that protects them from the cold. On a night with 10 degrees Fahrenheit air temperature, it can be much warmer —  over 30 degrees Fahrenheit — under 10 inches of snow. Small birds, and even larger ones like the ruffed grouse, burrow under that blanket to spend the night. Small mammals tunnel under the snow when the soil becomes frozen; it’s much easier to dig through the snow, so they get access to more food. Foxes and owls, who hunt by ear, find prey more easily.

But if snow melts away in the middle of winter or, worse, turns into ice, it becomes a deadly enemy. Deer hurt their legs when breaking through the ice crust. Voles, moles, and shrews suffocate in their burrows. Sleeping birds become trapped under the ice. Hibernating frogs, snakes, turtles, and salamanders find themselves entombed in it. So, every winter I hope for a stable cover of dry, fluffy snow.

Sign up for our newsletter here.