Northwest's winter coat: Gift from the skies late but worth the wait
Seattle Times staff reporter
It's a gift from above that defines the Northwest: Snowmelt spins our hydroelectric turbines, irrigates our crops and nudges salmon fingerlings out to sea.
More than half of the region's power comes from snowpack. And more than 70 percent of the surface water in the West comes from melting snow: Every 10 inches of snow holds about 3 inches of fresh water, the most valuable substance on earth.
But snow down here, along the crowded banks of Puget Sound, is a rarity — and even more so on Christmas.
While there has been snow on the ground for Christmas, in Seattle we've had snowfall on Dec. 25 only five times since 1909, and that's including a trace snowfall in 1944 and a half-inch in 1915. Lowland snowfall is a bit of a bust: Our biggest snow on record was in 1916, when a total of 32.5 inches fell in Seattle between Jan. 31 and Feb. 2.
But it has been downhill since. On average, since 1945, Sea-Tac gets dusted about four days a year with one inch or more.
But snow is never more than a short drive away. Our midwinter antidepressant, the glistening high country is the one place we can head when starved for light. Snow's brilliant facets turn the murk of a socked-in Western Washington winter into a dazzling dreamscape.
Firs let loose their bent-necked burden with a muffled thunk. Walking on new snow makes that delicious squeak.
Here at the Mount Baker Ski Area, a place of epic snowfalls, kids see snow for the wonder it is. They yelp with pleasure and turn somersaults on their snowboards.
More snow fell here in the winter of 1998-99 than has ever been recorded anywhere in the world, a spectacular 1,140 inches. "I'd be doing charter fishing in Hawaii if we had another year like that one," said Boyd Starr of Ferndale as he rumbles in a grooming machine, tamping down a recent snowfall of 30 inches.
"We ran this thing 20 hours a day and had to make tunnels for the chair lifts."
Duncan Howatt, general manager of the ski area since 1968, remembers seven feet of snow falling in 1976 in two days' time.
But then Mount Baker is known — and loved — for its extreme conditions, Starr said. "We have it steep, and we have it deep. And when you have both of those, it's going to be sweet."
"It's another life cycle," said Howatt as the season's first big dump created blizzard-like conditions. "I almost had goose bumps on my arm coming up here this morning."
Those who love and know snow also respect its awesome power.
Constantly changing weather makes avalanche awareness a necessity in the backcountry. Howatt said he has been buried twice in snow, once fearing it might take his life.
Around here, so-called slab avalanches happen when a heavier upper layer of snow slides off a lower layer of snow. Most people caught in an avalanche actually triggered it. Their weight breaks the fragile bonds that hold the layers together.
Thirty-five people were killed by avalanches in the United States in the winter of 2001-02, breaking the record of 33 set the winter before. While Washington had no avalanche deaths last year, it had three in 2000-01.
Each crystal is different, depending on where in its cloud it was born, where it traveled, and the weather it passed through, says Kenneth Libbrecht, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "You can read the history of where each has been, and each has a different history, just like people."
As the crystals grow, they become heavier and collide with others, becoming flakes heavy enough to fall to the ground.
Their beauty is ephemeral: Snow crystals deteriorate within minutes, as the delicate ends of their branches evaporate, leaving a nub of ice.
Each snowfall has its own character, too. There's powder, the skier's delight, that only comes with temperatures 29 degrees and lower. And, of course, the thigh-burning Cascade Concrete, the slab-like stuff that results from fresh snow at or near the freezing point.
We think of a snowfall as a quiet event, but even that depends on your perspective.
For avalanche-control crews working the slopes above highway passes, snow means it's time to wing dynamite into the drifts, or pound the white stuff with artillery.
And to sea life with the ability to hear high-pitched sounds, snow on water can be a cacophony.
Larry Crum, a physicist at the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory, found in work with colleagues that nine-tenths of the volume of a snowflake is air. When a snowflake hits water, it starts to melt and air inside is trapped underwater as bubbles. As the bubbles form, they ring like tiny bells.
Even on the ground, snow may look pristine and even barren, but it's far from it.
Snowfields teem with life, said John Edwards, a UW insect biologist. He has watched daddy longlegs scrambling across snowfields at night, looking for dinner. His kids once counted 250 ice worms in a single meter of snow.
And he has seen acres of snow go gray with the bodies of millions of insects called spring tails, equipped with ice-gripping claws.
"It's a world of life we don't see," Edwards said.
But then, not everyone gets the wonder of snow, especially while they are in it, says Libbrecht, and he — a native of North Dakota, transplanted to California — ought to know.
"It's hard to appreciate snow with a shovel in your hand."
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information in this article, originally published December 22, was corrected December 30. A previous version of this story gave Sea-Tac airport as the location for data recorded about a record snowfall in 1916. The location should have been Seattle.