Imagine the arctic. What do you see? Snow right? Lots of it. Maybe like the pictures above. It makes sense, it’s really cold so there should be lots and lots of snow. But one of the things that people tend to forget is that our region is a desert. We get somewhere between 9 and 10 inches of precipitation (liquid) per year depending on which report you look at.
Less than 10 inches per year generally qualifies a place as a desert. Death Valley California gets about 2.5 inches on average. Pasco, Wa gets 8 inches. In contrast Manoa valley in Honolulu, Hawaii gets over 150 inches a year.
It is important to remember that a foot of snow may only represent 1-3inches of liquid water, depending on consistency. So even if all 10 inches of precipitation were snow it would be between 3-10 feet of snow. Cut that in half because half (or more) of the precipitation comes during warmer months brings us down to 1-5 feet. And don’t forget that when it is windy snow tends to blow away, to where I could not say.
The snow tends to drift, so in a few places it may be the deep snow landscape that people envision when they think of the arctic. Some drifts form high cornices along cliffs and hills. Some snow banks are deep enough to make a snow cave which is something I would like to do when I can find the time. But the majority of the open landscape fairly shallow snow. The tundra that makes up much of the surrounding area is only a few inches deep, just enough to fill in some of the gaps and holes in the tussocks.
The trees are some what sheltered from the wind and are, in my opinion, the best measure depth. Right now we have 2 feet on average in the trees. Last year we had more. There were weeks when it snowed every day. That snow was light and fluffy and often very fine and tended to settle so it still pails in comparison to places like New York.
Now we are 150 miles from the coast and just barely above the arctic circle. The further up you go the longer the winter, the colder, and the more snow right? Wrong. Barrow only gets 5 inches a year. Longer winter and colder maybe, but remember your 1st grade water cycle project? Any water that falls from the sky, including snow, has to come from clouds which come from evaporation from lakes, rivers and oceans. In the arctic the ocean freezes in the winter meaning there is no evaporation and thus clouds have to make it a long ways to dump snow. So in the face of common sense, after a point (where ever the ocean freezes) you begin to have less snow as you head further North.
What has surprised me most are the properties of snow when it is cold, say below 10 degrees. It is more like sand than anything. On the windward side of a drift it creates many of the same shapes and patterns that you might expect from dunes. And often though they look soft are hard enough to stand on from being pressed and packed by the wind. On the leeward side, it is dusty and the kids can roll around in it like in a sandbox without fear it will stick to their coats. It billows and blows in wisps across the roads and tundras. It actually reminds me of steam dancing on a pot just before it boils. It is hard to explain but very cool in my opinion. The best comparison I can make is to the dust dancing on the road back home. And just like the dust back home can sting your eyes and face and make it hard to see. Goggles are a must when driving.
Another interesting thing, to me at least, is the types of snow. I have never seen the fractal snowflakes like you see in pictures until I came up here. In Washington we get mainly what I would call cotton candy snow. Large clumps or small they are more like shattered mushed together pieces or chips of frost than perfect individual flakes.
I had some fun last year trying to preserve snow flakes with glue and microscope slides. It was cold and a lot of work, and the results were far from perfect specimens but it was really interesting and lots of fun. This year I have not had the opportunity to try again. It is either snowing on a weekday when I am working, or when it is really cold out and I can’t stand to work without gloves (kind of a necessity when working with tiny fragile crystals) or it is not the right kind of snow. Still I am hopeful and there is still time left in the snow season which should last until May.
I had hoped to get some pictures of the cornices and drifts but they are mostly out of town and my snowgo is not running right now (water in the line maybe?). What you see is just the old pictures I had from before, maybe next time I will try to include some.