Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Take This Snow and Shove It

Back in the late 80s I used to write a column, "Signs of the Seasons," for the Las Cruces Bulletin.  I've been meaning to recycle some of those articles through the blog, but have never gotten around to it.  The light dusting of snow we got yesterday reminded me of the 18" of snow we received in December 1987, and the column I wrote about it.  So here it is, from the January 1988 Las Cruces Bulletin:

The second half of December gave us the longest stretch of lousy winter weather I can remember in a long time. Wading through slush is not one of my favorite activities. Like Johnny Paycheck, I say, “You can take this snow and shove it”... all the way back to Wisconsin where it belongs. I mean, if I wanted to live in North Dakota, I’d move there. I’ve already got plenty of “winter wonderland” slides in my photo collection, thank you. I got in a lifetime’s worth of sledding as a kid. And I’ve been stuck in the snow enough times to know what getting stuck in the snow is all about. I thought we had a good thing going here in the Las Cruces area—Ruidoso and Cloudcroft are close enough for the die-hard snow junkies among us, while the rest of us were allowed to lead sunny lives unimpeded by that dreadful white stuff from the sky. But occasionally, like this year, the weather insists on breaking our fragile winter truce, and dumps all over everybody, saints and sinners alike. Humbug to snow is all I can say.

No, actually, I'll say a lot more about the snow in this column. After all, there were a lot of interesting observations to be made, so I made them. Gave me something to do while I was muttering “humbug” under my breath all the time.

The first big storm hit on Dec. 14. Las Cruces received a relatively light snowfall, but surrounding areas were hard-hit. Here at Radium Springs we received a ridiculous 18 inches of snow. I say “ridiculous” because in this area, 6 inches is considered a major snowfall, with impassable passes, cars skidded into onion fields, and school kids eagerly lined up next to their radios awaiting word that school has been cancelled. Eighteen inches of snow is in a class all by itself. When I work up that morning and the first thing I saw was 18 inches of snow looming over my bedroom window (which overlooks an adjoining porch roof), I quite nearly lost it then and there. “No way, Jose,” I muttered, pulling the quilt over my head and going back to sleep.

The first thing I noticed, upon investigating our blizzard at first-hand, was that my rubber boots are only 16 inches high. Since the snow was 18 inches deep, this meant that with every step, a heaping handful of snow sifted its way down the tops of my boots, quickly soaking my socks with ice water. I might as well have been barefoot. For several days thereafter, I had to clear a path in front of me with a shovel anytime I wanted to go anywhere. Great fun.

Conditions were right that night for record-breaking low temperatures. I put my thermometer outside that evening and recorded +9° at 7 p.m., 0° at 8:30, and -2° at 10. However, since the humidity was so high, fog formed during the pre-dawn hours, and by 6 a.m. on the 15th, the temperature had warmed all the way back up to +5°.

How could it warm back up in the middle of the night, you might well ask. Well, the reason is, the earth is a tremendous heat reservoir—just a few feet under the surface, temperatures are near 60° year-round. So this stored heat leaked up out of the earth, through the snow, and was trapped by the fog, which makes an effective insulating blanket. (If skies had remained clear, we surely would have recorded at least -10°.) Since the temperature was so far below freezing, we had an “ice fog” which coated every twig of every tree with a half inch layer of sparking hoarfrost. The river was frozen nearly all the way across. The landscape was a study in white and gray. The scene was transcendentally beautiful, if you liked snow and ice.

A snow like this is very hard on the birds, who have high metabolisms and become very hungry if they can’t find food for a day or two. Since the ground was completely blanketed with an unprecedented carpet of snow, thousands of birds were forced to forage for food along the only thawed area available... a thin strip, inches wide, along the east side of Highways 85 and 28 north of Las Cruces. Being birdbrains, they would feed until the last second when a car approached, and then likely as not they’d fly directly into the path of the oncoming car. I hit a good half-dozen birds on a single trip back from Las Cruces the day after the snow. Within a day the highways were splattered with dozens of little pancaked bird bodies. The other birds, being very hungry, congregated at the carcasses of their brethren and had a feast. I have never seen this happen before.

Another unusual event occurred a few days later when the snow finally began to melt, causing local arroyos to run with snowmelt water. Very rarely do arroyos run during the winter. And the saltcedar forests along the Rio Grande looked (and still look) like they’d been hit by a hurricane. With their shallow roots and brittle branches, a lot of saltcedar trees had their tops snapped off, or ended up with their trunks parallel to the ground. Mother Nature can be a messy housekeeper.

We finally had a couple of nice days, but then we received 4 inches of snow on Christmas and an additional inch the next day, plus some low temperatures: +4° on the 27th and +6° on the 28th. I figure only single-digit temperatures are worth writing about. I’ve got scads of double-digit readings, but will spare you.

Well, here we are at the bottom of the column and not only haven’t I discussed our tree-of-the-month, but I haven’t even talked about January yet! Which is perhaps just as well... as I sit here typing this on New Year’s Day, I look outside at leaden skies, icy winds, and the last frozen remnants of the Christmas snow, and I don’t even want to think about January! Instead, I think I’ll throw another couple of logs on the fire, draw the curtains, and have another cup of herb tea.