Snow has affected the outcome of wars. It has been vital to the world economy. From the Atlantic Coastal Plain to the Sierra Nevada to the arid West, it has been a catalyst in transforming the United States from wilderness to economic superpower. It might be a last line of defense against global warming, so much so that the future of snow has become a tremendous source of anxiety in the climate community.
But beyond its paramount importance as a natural resource, snow is embedded in the national consciousness in ways that transcend the practical or logical. For millions of Americans what is most compelling about snow is the complex and enchanting phenomenon itself. In a perfectly formed snowflake, a magical metamorphosis of 100,000 water droplets, a true snow-lover might see Divine artistry.
The evidence of snow’s hold on the public is indisputable. Watch how government and private websites become inundated with traffic when a threatened storm approaches a major population area. See how much of local TV news segments are devoted to weather when even a rumor of snow is in the vicinity. The Weather Channel gave snowstorms names, and they became at once the protagonists and antagonists in some of their most popular running dramas.
The nation has a unique and complex relationship with the six-sided crystals that Emerson called nature’s masterpiece. One obvious reason is the fact that no other country has so many densely populated areas prone to frequently snowy winters and mega storms. Three of the world’s snowiest big cities — Syracuse, Buffalo, and Rochester — are within 150 miles of each other in New York state. The Gulf Stream, one of the planet’s most volatile storm breeding grounds, curves off the North Carolina coast and blows up the nor’easters that can shut down the I-95 corridor. Blizzards roar out of the Rockies, winter cyclones blow up along fronts in the Midwest, blue northers drive snow into the heart of Texas.
Snow has long captured the American imagination. The first European settlers were awed by what they encountered in the New World, what to them were literally fantastic snows, and cold they had never experienced. Boston’s January average temperature, 29, is about 12 degrees lower than London’s, an Ice Age difference. The abrupt climate change is mystifying: London is 700 miles closer to the North Pole than Boston is. This was a climate as unknown to the Europeans as the indigenous peoples they encountered.
The nation’s relationship with snow evolved with the Industrial Revolution as snow became an enemy of progress, then gained only more intensity with the record snowfalls of the last three decades as the world has grown warmer. In researching and writing my book on snow, I tried to address fundamental questions about the science behind it: why it snows; why in the 21st century meteorologists still struggle with forecasting it, despite the most powerful computers that taxpayers and private interests can buy; and what kind of future snow might have in a warming world.
I learned that snow entrances precisely because it is so hard to pin down. Yes, snowflakes are “alike,” but no two are identical, and snow actually isn’t “white.” Snow once was actually viewed as a boon to commerce; artificial snow-making dates to the 1930s. And despite our yearly winter panic, along the I-95 corridor we have barely a snowball’s chance of a white Christmas in any given year.
Yet in any given winter, residents of the Northeast and across the country learn anew that snow has power at once menacing and magical. It can impose a cease-and-desist order on the normal business of life. It can mute the cacophony of the noisiest city with its silencing powers, while transforming the bleakest urban environment into a winter playground.
I grew up in one of those bleak, noisy urban environments, Chester. It was an industrial behemoth during the two world wars and then rapidly went the way of other places where ships and anchors and steel and paper products were once manufactured, then disappeared. In my youth it was in a constant state of Monday morning, a brooding shipyard whistle dictating its rhythms, with factory smoke masquerading as clouds. But a decent snowfall could still route the smoke, the roaring trains inciting blizzards of white clouds along the railroad tracks. The uncanny snow animated the humble bricking of the houses and stonework of the churches. It found its way into the nooks and crevices of architectural details and everyday objects, Emily Dickinson’s “alabaster wool” that fills “the wrinkles of the road.” Once I discovered that snow could close school, a minimum-security prison with a liberal weekend furlough policy, I was hooked for life.
Through a passion for snow I derived invaluable lessons: You can’t always get what you want and sometimes not even what you need, and, in the words of Robert Frost, “Nothing gold can stay.” I endured the heartache of anticipating a snowstorm that I hoped would close my school for life, only to get nothing; or worse, rain. I discovered that even adults could be clueless.
“We were already praying — that it would snow until June.”
One December morning I trudged to school through a mix of snow and rain and slush that expert forecasters said would change to all rain once temperatures rose to 40. By midmorning, however, saucer-size flakes were accumulating rapidly. Miss Conley, our wise and wonderful teacher, looked out the window, and then back to us. “Please, boys and girls,” she pleaded, “pray that it stops snowing.” Amazing. Even an intelligent adult could spend six hours a day with 9-year-olds and know so little about them. We were already praying — that it would snow until June.
Snow forecasts continue to frustrate meteorologists: Computers have limitations, observations are wanting. Keep in mind the atmosphere is a three-dimensional chaotic system, a 10-mile-deep mass of gases clinging to sphere spinning 1,000 mph and hurtling through space at 69,000 mph.
As with so many subjects worth pursuing, an inquiry into snow becomes a window onto the natural and the metaphysical, onto science and history, onto the infinitely large and infinitely small. The views at times might be limited and frustratingly opaque, but profoundly worth the effort to focus the lens. The career of snow is inextricably tied to the future of earth’s climate — and so to our future.
Anthony R. Wood is an Inquirer staff writer and author of Snow: A History of the World’s Most Fascinating Flake (Prometheus Books/Rowman & Littlefield), released Dec. 8, from which this article was adapted.