Rocks, Snow, Gold

The snow is FINALLY melting here, and as it does, I’m learning something new about the yard–where the soil is especially shallow.  Like so much of this region, our yard has lots of ledge.  But since I am no longer in the habit of digging holes just to see how deep I can go (a practice my brothers and I found inexplicably fun as kids), I only knew the whereabouts of the ledgy bits that had to be blasted to lay water pipes and electrical lines when the house was being built.

Looking around now, though, I see areas where the snow melted quickly, and other spots still covered by the dirty, crusty last vestiges.  Some of the variation is due to location–there’s snow in the shadow of the house, for instance, and in the woods.  But in other spots, no above-ground explanations suffice.  So I went looking for insight as to why snow melts unevenly.

Here’s the best short answer I found on the web:

Snow ablation and melt

The rate of snow melt is dependent on energy availability, which is mostly in the form of radiation. Cold snowpacks have a negative energy balance, but warming causes the snowpack to become isothermal (0 degrees C) and additional energy results in positive energy balance and melt. Daily snow melt in forested areas is considerably less than melt in open areas, as forests protect the snow cover from solar radiation and wind. Canopy warming can increase longwave radiation, but the net effect of forest is reduction in melt. Rain falling on snowpack may accelerate its melt rate, but intense sunshine of late spring and summer is the principal melting energy source.

Most operational procedures for snow melt prediction rely on ambient air temperature as the index of the energy available for melt. The temperature index is usually used to characterize the level of the energy balance because it is superior to other simple methods for the full energy balance at the snow surface. The most common expression relating snow melt to the temperature index is:

M = Cm(Tair – Tmelt)

where M is the daily snow melt (mm/day), Cm is the melt rate factor (mm/oC per day), Tair is the daily ambient temperature (oC) and Tmelt is the threshold melt temperature (oC). The critical melt temperature is often set to 0 degrees C but can be optimized for a particular location.

Is that not awesome?!?

Unfortunately for me, it doesn’t really get at the reasons why snow on rock melts faster than snow on soil.  So, I’ve decided to settle on conjecture for now….and that conjecture is:  density.  Here’s my thinking:  soil heats up and cools down much more slowly than does air because it is so much denser than air.  So, one can say that soil holds heat “better” than air.  And rock is denser than soil, so by analogy it should hold heat even “better” than dirt.  I’m sure a geothermal engineer could give me a more precise explanation, but I don’t know any geothermal engineers.

So now, I’m imagining an earth art project based on these new-found speculations/insights.  We bury a message by writing in with rocks on a huge field, and then covering the whole field with another layer of soil and then grow some wildflowers on top.  Every spring, when the snow melts, the message would be visible for a day or two, as the snow above the rock-line writing melts more quickly than that in the rest of the field.  Ah, what to write, what to write?

Part of the reason I’ve been thinking about rocks and temperature is because of the joyful snow melt.  But part of it is because of the far less joyful glacier melt.

paint-glacier-whiteAs glaciers recede, hosts of folks are trying to figure out what can be done to slow the process.  And one guy who came up with a possibly crazy/possibly genius proposal to slow glacial retreat in the Andes is Eduardo Gold.  He doesn’t call himself an artist or a scientist, but what he’s doing is of a piece with other artful remediation projects.  He’s painting the landscape.  Literally. With the help of some men from a nearby village–and funds from the World Bank through their “100 Ideas to Save the Planet” competition, in which he was one of the winners in 2009–he is whitewashing the rocks near the peak of Chalon Sombrero, in hopes of shifting the micro-climate and encouraging the glacier to expand.

Gold and his assistants are using an environmentally-kind “paint” made of lime, egg whites, and water, which they slosh over the rocks.  The premise is that by changing the reflectivity of the surface, the area will become a bit cooler, perhaps enough cooler to re-create the conditions that had been in place when the glaciers were larger.  And if that works, the glaciers will slowly begin to regrow.  Once there’s more glacier, its surface color will be the dominant one, and it will have the right reflectivity to self-maintain.

I hope it works.  It would be amazing if grassroots efforts to stave off climate disruption could generate positive effects.

From an entirely different perspective, Gold’s work also calls to mind some of the issues that Jena Duncan’s project on eating local food brought to the fore.  If I did what Eduardo Gold is doing, it would be an artwork.  If my brother who is an environmental engineer did it, it would be a slightly quirky project, but still all in a day’s work–and decidedly not art.  What is it when Gold does it?

And what does it mean that what an act “is” depends on who performs that act?

Critical Timing; or, Of Fish and Flowering

This past week was one in which the return to life in this corner of the universe was early.  I’m trying super-hard not to panic about such things; maybe it’s just a weather-ish fluctuation.  It has been a beautiful, warm, dry spring — the antithesis of last year’s waterlogged start to summer.  But I can’t help thinking that this balminess is evidence of dire climate change.  But how to know?  I’m trying to pay better attention, hoping that at the very least, doing so will help me get a better sense of what I am and am not seeing.

High on the list of recent seeings were flowers and fish.  Low, unfortunately, were bees.



We’ve got a Hawthorn tree in our yard that is normally in full flower in the June-teens.  That’s late for Hawthorns in general, but right on schedule for ours and for this area.  This year, in keeping with its nickname, it commenced awesomeness on May 24, was at its peak around May 29/30, and has already noticeably faded.  Folks who’ve glanced at my recent folio, A Field Guide to Other People’s Trees, know that one of the things I most love about this tree is the week when it’s in flower because the bees cannot resist it.  The tree/bee dyad hums for days, a whirring that is visual and auditory as the bees shake free what they need.  But this year, while there were plenty of the teeny flies that also contribute to that stunning event, there were practically no bees.  Maybe the tree was too early for them?  I haven’t seen many yet.  Or maybe a sign of something more serious?

fish-lad-overview-300x200A quite un-dire event that took place Memorial Day weekend was a celebration at the fish ladder in Damariscotta, just a wee bit south of us.  The fish ladder there has been used by alewives to return from the sea to Damariscotta Lake for centuries, at least, in order to spawn.

Over the past few years, local citizens have worked to make it more amenable to their fishy needs — for increased human presence had altered the landscape and waterscape in ways that made it very hard for the fish to get back to their spawning grounds.  The people have spent a tremendous amount of money and effort building a ladder that the fish will be comfortable using.  And their work is paying off.  Twenty times as many fish climbed the ladder this year as did five years ago.  That means more potential spawn, a stronger alewife stock, and all the benefits that come with re-calibrating an ecosystem back toward its more normative state.  Of course, we can’t undo the changes — and this cement and re-bar laden fish ladder is quite unlike earlier versions.  But the generosity of people who opened their backyards to people to see the ladder, and who let the renovations happen there is encouraging to me.

fish-ladder-2-closeup1-245x300Because the fish run had peaked a week earlier, we saw a modest number of fish compared to the zenith, but it was still impressive.  It turns out that the peak didn’t coincide with the fish festival dates because the fish were also early — lured by the warm and sunny conditions this May.  Their early arrival means a different disruption to the system, with consequences we can’t yet fully know.

Since I was six, I’ve been linked to a school — either as a student or a teacher, or sometimes both.  And so for all of my memory, the annual rhythm has been academic, a year that goes from September to December, then January to May, then June to August.  It’s been a reassuring cycle, one largely in accord with other rhythms, most especially the arrival of new freshmen, the departure of graduating seniors, the appreciation by all of the summer hiatus.  Now, paying attention to these shifts that creatures enact in response to the larger forces, I’ve been working to imagine what it would be like to be more fully in accord with the cycles — and the digressions from such fixed rhythms — that shape the physical world.  It might not demand huge adjustments, but I’m guessing that, in fact, it will….