By Sarah Schrock
As winter melts away and the layers of clothing peel off with it, the lost-and-found at Methow Valley Elementary School becomes an impressive collection of winter treasures. It’s not the only place lost items can be found this time of year.
As the snow rapidly retreats, our yard becomes a great hidden treasure trove transporting us to the land of lost objects, revealing numerous items long forgotten from a time before the great storms. Each day I find something new. This season’s thaw has reclaimed a tennis ball and doggie “chuck it” toy, countless deer bones, a full metallic water bottle, an orange construction cone, and a red Radio Flyer wagon. It has also revealed many spots of snow mold growing on my lawn.
Last week I began raking up leaf matter and dead twigs that had fallen through the winter. As I did, I noticed gray snow mold. It looked like fuzzy mats of furry, flattened tufts of grey hair growing in 8- to 12-inch patches throughout my lawn. I raked through them in hopes that by breaking up the mats they won’t do as much damage to my lawn.
Snow mold is a fungus that grows under the snow pack and can colonize in patches, killing live grass and creating unsightly circular patterns of dead lawn. I am not a lawn perfectionist, but I have noticed these patches before and this year I am hoping I am a step head of the fungal hyphae. I hope to keep up with the melted-out areas and destroy the mats as I see them before the grass starts growing again. I hold no anger for the fungus, even if it does make for dead lawn spots. I know fungi are a vital part of the soil profile and are simply doing their part to break down dead matter and support a robust soil ecology.
The snow mold is not the only critter that thrives as the snow melts. In fact, this time of year many organisms from algae to bacteria to insects utilize the water content of the melting snow to proliferate, creating a complex snow culture to so to speak.
Tom Hinckley from Mazama recently shared with me some interesting ecology regarding the small black snow fleas he’s been seeing up Spokane Gulch that litter the surface of the snow. Tom was one of my favorite forest ecology professors at the University of Washington, and incidentally, I met my husband in one of his classes. Needless to say, the many field trips in the woods were, well, exciting — but that’s a different story. Back to the fleas.
Actually, they aren’t fleas at all. In fact, technically they aren’t even insects. They are springtails, part of an ancient family of organisms called hexapods. They are commonly called snow fleas because, like a flea, they jump across the snow propelled by an appendage called a furcula that acts as a catapult. Snow springtails contain a remarkable type of anti-freeze protein in their body that allows them to live on the snow. Springtails are important soil decomposers, breaking down organic matter. So, next time you are out on the snow and see the blanket of black dots, take a closer look at the little black critters and remember that they are helping enrich the soil beneath the snow.
You probably notice this time of year that the crisp white blanket begins to dull as dust, grime, and unsightly filth discolors the snow. To spare you a discussion of the most offensive and disgusting tinted-snow tones, the most curious and perhaps unique is red snow. Sometimes called watermelon, pink, or blood snow, red snow results from algae that grow on the surface of melting snow. The algae require liquid water content to grow and the UV rays from the sun bring out reddish pigments.
Red snow is particularly common at higher altitudes and on glaciers, though it can occur anywhere. Red snow accelerates melting of the snow because it lowers the albedo, or reflectiveness, of the sun’s rays. Darker colors absorb more light, so the heavier the algae bloom, the faster the snow will melt. Red snow is also a food source for, you guessed it, springtails!
Though mud season can be a little dreary, appreciating the web of life unfolding in the melting snow pack, redefines March as a true hidden treasure; a time for the smallest of earth’s organisms to literally spring into life preparing the stage for the next act, a time to witness the primitive stages of the rapid awakening that is about to burst forth, and a time to visit the land of the lost and found.