Formozov-inspired Concepts in
Snow Ecology in North America.

Bulletin Moscow Society of Naturalists,
vol.104, No.3:pp.13-22.
(Memorial Volume on the Hundredth Anniversary
of the Birth of Alexander Nikolaevich Formozov;
in Russian and English)

William 0. Pruitt, Jr.

Department of Zoology,
The University of Manitoba,
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
R3T 2N2




Pruitt, W.O., Jr. 1999. Formozov-inspired Concepts in Snow Ecology in North America. Bulletin Moscow Society of Naturalists, vol.104, No.3:pp.13-22.(Memorial Volume on the Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of Alexander Nikolaevich Formozov; in Russian and English)


I first encountered the works of Alexander Nikolaevich Formozov in 1953 when I was on a post-doctoral fellowship on the George Reserve of the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. I was floundering in a study of small mammals and their adaptation to winter, but my progress was slow and I lacked focus.

A colleague, Dr.William Prychodko, who had recently emigrated from Ukraine, introduced me to a book on snow and its influence on the ecology of mammals and birds. When Bill translated for me a page here and there it was quite clear that this was the key publication for my study. I resolved to learn Russian so I could access this literature.

Over the next few years I worked at the language. After my post-doctoral fellowship I moved to Alaska and Bill and I sent paragraphs and chapters back and forth in rough and rougher English, German and Russian.

The human mind cannot think about an object or a phenomenon unless there is a name or some way of identifying it, of circumscribing it, of giving it boundaries. Alexander Nikolaevich's book and published papers did this for snow phenomena.

The English language evolved in a misty, maritime climate where snow was an uncommon occurrence. Consequently, there was no selection pressure to evolve special name-handles for phenomena that occurred locally only rarely, if at all. Alexander Nikolaevich's work filled this gap. Now that I had a system of name-handles I began to look at the world through different eyes. Not only could I now differentiate between snow on the ground and snow on the trees as distinct phenomena but I could look at a forest in the summer and identify the effect of snow on the trees the previous winters.

On many field trips in all seasons during my 12 years in Alaska, and, later in northern Canada, I made efforts to talk with native people, particularly the elders. Even then, in the mid-1950's, detailed specific knowledge of snow phenomena was disappearing at a frightful rate before the onslaught of the white man's culture. I encountered two people who were real gold mines of information. One was Daniel John, an Athabaskan (Dene). His father had hated the white man and had kept his family in the bush away from the degrading influence of the cities. Consequently, Daniel had learned no saleable skills and was on the lowest socioeconomic level. But he was a treasure trove of information about the old ways, especially knowledge of the effects of snow cover on animals and plants. And he had a name for nearly everything. My second goldmine was Chester Sivik an Inupiat from Kotzebue. He was a Kovakmiut, originally from the upper valley of the Kobuk River. This is taiga and altitudinal forest-tundra country. The Kovakmiut are exposed to forest snow and have evolved words for these different snow features. They also retain their cultural knowledge and words for features of the hard, wind-moved snow of the tundra. They have, therefore, the richest snow vocabulary I have encountered. Chester Sivik, as a young man, had worked with the Sami reindeer herders who had been brought to northwestern Alaska along with the semi-domesticated reindeer. He had absorbed concepts and words from the Sami.

In Finland and Sweden I later encountered Sami reindeer herders. I discovered that, whereas the Kovakmiut and Dene were notably concerned with surface features of a snow cover, the Sami paid particular attention to the base of the snow cover (see Glossary).They also introduced concepts of time-mediated changes which resulted in different types of basal snow which influenced, in different ways, how reindeer could access lichens and other ground vegetation. Finnish and Russian have also contributed words (and thereby concepts) to the lexicon.We are far from having a complete lexicon, however. For example, I know of three types of hollows in a snow cover around a tree trunk. If the hollow is caused by wind increasing in speed as it swirls around the trunk and scoops out the hollow, it is an anyemanya; if it is caused by snow flakes being caught on the needly branches above, then it is a qamaniq. But there also can be a space between the trunk and the wall of api that is caused by solar heat re-radiating from the trunk and subliming the snow wall. This space is frequently used by voles to come up to the surface (possibly to escape a high concentration of CO2 in the pukak space?) I once noted that chickadees (Parus atricapillus and P. hudsonicus) used these hollows as roosting sites for the transitory period of very low ambient light intensity during a full eclipse of the sun. I have yet to encounter a name for this specific snow phenomenon.

Because qali has such ecological importance, my students and I have evolved several generations of qalimetres or instruments to standardize measurements of qali. Of course, such studies (Pruitt 1958; Schaefer 1996) must be piggy-backed on others because there is no financial support available from regular fund-granting agencies for them. On the other hand, calling it "intercepted snow" means it is of immediate interest because it affects the hydrology of spring run-off. Consequently, a big Canadian government research laboratory uses an entire tree, cut off at the base and suspended from a huge scale, as a qalimetre to measure "intercepted snow ". But, let's face it. Although Canada is a "northern nation" geographically, in cultural terms it is southern. Most of the population lives within 100 kilometres or so of the southern border. Moreover, there is tremendous influence by the warm temperate and subtropical culture of the United States. The result is, in Canada, a cultural aversion to winter and snow.

Although Canada has produced some of the world's greatest naturalists (e.g.-Ernest Thompson Seton) we have, nonetheless, only a poorly-developed cultural tradition for long-term, detailed natural history studies. Moreover, in recent years there has been greater attention (and support) paid to laboratory studies of cellular and molecular biology and the substitution of artificial "keyboard ecology" instead of actual, hands-on field observations, measurements and experiments (Ehrenfeld 1993, Noss 1996). This has been accompanied by actual opposition from "official" organizations of atmospheric physicists to any use of non-English terms. For example, the directions to authors of papers presented at a recent symposium on "snow ecology" included 8 pages of Latin and Greek words and symbols approved for use, but ended with an admonition that "...No use of non-English snow terms is allowed." To me, this smacks of institutionalized racism. In contrast, there has been widespread approval by North American aboriginal leaders of my following the concepts of A. N. Formozov and introducing precise native snow terms into the scientific lexicon.

I have a bibliography of about 675 scientific papers and articles on snow ecology from mainly Canadian and USA sources, but very, very few of them have progressed to using Formozov-inspired precise descriptive snow terms.

The papers fall into several general categories: (1) Detailed studies of animals and plants on, under and in the snow cover, especially considerations of temperature, radiant energy and trophic relations; (2) Chemistry of snow covers, falling, blowing snow, melting snow and run-off; (3) Meteorology and atmospheric physics of snow formation and transport; (4) Ice phenomena, including glaciation, arctic and antarctic considerations; (5) Techniques and instrumentation, sampling; (6) Snow and ice in outdoor education. Only in categories (1) and (6) do we find much use of precise native terms for specific snow phenomena. The other categories are notable for papers with a preponderance of inclusions of snow types confounded into generalities and a failure to differentiate variation.

Not long ago I met a young chap who employed (correctly) the Formozov-inspired native North American snow terms. Delighted, I asked him how he had learned such words. He replied that he had taken a training course in Outdoor Education in Quebec and had been introduced to the terms there. He had found the words so useful that he uses them in his present role as Outward Bound instructor.

So, although the "official" meteorological organizations discourage the use of any but the imprecise and inadequate English words for snow features, once the Formozov-inspired precise native terms were published in English-language journals the concepts were released. Their usefulness was obvious and they began to be employed. Censorship on any level is never successful.

One way to ensure wide distribution of Formozov-inspired detailed snow terms is to introduce them early to children. Two recent "activity" books for children are especially good in this regard. One, entitled Snow Watch by Cheryl Archer (1994), presents a series of projects such as making plastic impressions of falling snowflakes, demonstrating the heat of fusion, the colours of snow, pukak and small mammals, glaciation, home-made instruments to measure the characteristics of snow, making a quin-zhee, adaptations of mammals and birds to snow and actual use of the terms chionophile, chioneuphore and chionophobe.

Another, larger and more detailed book is Knee-High Nature: Winter by Dianne Hayley and Pat Wishart (1993). Both these books, because of their thorough and precise consideration of snow phenomena, rely heavily on the concepts originally formulated by Alexander Nikolaevich and terms derived from them.

A good example of the importance of recognizing and using precise native terms concerns "feeding craters". This phrase is frequently used in the ecological literature to refer to any type of excavation in the api by Rangifer to access subnivean vegetation. I found that Sami reindeer herders differentiated three types of "feeding craters". These are (1) suov´dnji or an individual feeding site excavated in the api, separated from other sites by undisturbed api, (2) fies´ki or a roughly circular site of thin, hard and dense snow cover caused by reindeer digging and extending a perimetre expanding into undisturbed api from an original suov'dnji or group of suov'dnji and (3) ciegar or a linear extension through undisturbed api of a sequential series of suov'dnji. Actual feeding on ground vegetation occurs only at the terminal end of a ciegar. Excavated snow is kicked back, partially filling the trench with snow that sinters and becomes very hard. I applied my Värriö Snow Index to my observations and found that there was a clear mathematical distinction between snow covers that exhibited these three types (Pruitt 1992). Moreover, the different types were the result of different behavioural reactions of Rangifer. Without the knowledge of these Sami words and concepts, such important behavioural phenomena would probably have remained undetected. For example, the colour photograph on the cover of Miller (1976) is described as being of a "caribou trail," although it has the characteristics of a ciegar.

Another example of the importance of recognizing snow phenomena by precise native terms is the confounding of surface sculpturings of tundra snow (upsik) and drifting snow (siqoq) under the words "skavler" (Norwegian) or "zastrugi" (Russian). My recognition of the Inupiat (Kovakmiut) words resulted in focussed field observations that led to recognition of a cycle of drift formations.

The sequence of drift types appears as follows: Snow particles are released from suspension in the air whenever the speed of air movement is not sufficient to support them. Thus, snow accumulates in microtopographic depressions, stream-beds and behind obstructions (which may, themselves, be nivographic details). Later winds of greater force or different direction may scour these spots and redeposit the particles elsewhere. On a flat, relatively unobstructed surface many of these particles advance in groups, A group assumes a characteristic arrowhead shape with the point upwind, a gradually sloping up-wind face and a lee slope which is abrupt and concave laterally. At the tang of the arrowhead the thickness of the drift is greatest. These drifts are known "officially" as barkhans, but more accurately, in Inupiat, as kalutoganiq. ("Barkhan" is an Arabic word for a sand drift of similar shape while kalutoganiq refers to this precise snow drift type.) Kalutoganiq migrate downwind as the particles are exposed on the windward face, are moved over the surface of the drift and then are temporarily immobilized on the steep lee slope. Whenever the wind slackens the kalutoganiq become consolidated through the processes of sublimation and re-crystallization.

Later winds, if of sufficient force, will erode away the kalutoganiq, producing sculptured forms which have great beauty but which are exceedingly difficult to traverse. The sculpturings are widely known by the terms zastrugi (Russian) or skavler (Norwegian) but are more accurately known as kaioglaq (Inupiat). Zastrugi or skavler refer to surface sculpturings in general. Kaioglaq refers to large, hard sculpturings while the word tumarinyiq (Inupiat) refers to small zastrugi or "ripple marks" which are the last remains of kaioglaq.

Kaioglaq eventually may be eroded away completely and the particles regrouped downwind again into kalutoganiq. A late stage of kaioglaq is the formation of overhanging drifts or mapsuk. The windward point of a ridge of kaioglaq is eroded faster at base level than above it, thus forming the characteristic anvil tip which points upwind. This succession of drift forms may be diagrammed as in Figure 1 (Pruitt 1966).

Figure 1 Inupiat names for features of the cycle of tundra snowdrift formations Pruitt 1966
Figure 1:
Inupiat names for features of the
cycle of tundra snowdrift formations.

Further research is needed, especially regarding subnivean temperatures and temperature gradients through the varying thicknesses and densities of the upsik (as kalutoganiq form and move) and how they affect subnivean plants and animals.

Alexander Nikolaevich's introduction of terms from native languages for precise identification of snow phenomena was a major contribution to the science of ecology. Of probably equal or greater technical significance was his classification of animals into three groups based on their ecological relations to snow. "Snow cover, for many species, is the most important element of environmental resistance and the struggle against this particular element is almost beyond some species' ability. Such species do not inhabit snowy regions and we can unite them into a group that avoids snow, or "chionophobes" - the small cats, steppe antelope , steppe sand grouse, black partridge, many small terrestrial birds, etc. This group is connected by a number of gradations with the species that can withstand winters with considerable snow. These species we can call "chioneuphores" - (moose, reindeer,wolverine, wolf, fox, many voles, moles, shrews, etc.). Finally there are forms which have characteristic adaptations (winter-white coloration, winter peculiarities of foot-coverings, etc.) which were undoubtedly perfected by snow cover taking part in selection. The ranges of these forms lie completely or almost completely in regions of hard and continuous winters with much snow (willow ptarmigan, rock ptarmigan, varying hare, arctic fox, collared lemming, etc.) "Chionees" (snowy) or "Chionophiles" (snow-lovers) are quite appropriate names for these forms..." (Formozov 1946).

Not only is this classification important for recognition of the glacial and post-glacial history of northern animals but recognition of these categories has great potential value for management. Scarce funds need not be spent on attempts to increase numbers of individuals of a chionophobe species in a region subject to frequent winters with excessive snow cover.

I consider "The Classics of Biology" to be those books that present ideas which cause one to look on the natural world through entirely different glasses, from a different perspective. There are very few of these "Classics":

To paraphrase E.O.Wilson (1984: 74), Alexander Nikolaevich Formozov "...lives on as he would have liked, in the irreversible change he caused in an important branch of science."

I am grateful to Dr. N. A. Formozov for inviting me to contribute to this memorial volume and to A.A. Bonch-Osmolovskaya for her skillful translation from the English original.



Although definitions of specialized snow terminology have been published by Pruitt (1957, 1958, 1960, 1966, 1970, 1978, and 1984) and Eriksson (1976) as well as earlier by Formozov (1946) and Nasimovich (1955) precise designation of snow phenomena continue to be misused, misspelled or ignored.






Space formed between drift and obstruction causing it.



Snow on the ground.

Bodni vihki


Frozen layer of snow next to the soil; granular structure exists, but crystals intensely bonded together.



Dense basal layer caused by the sequence of (1) unfrozen soil (2)warmer layer of snow resulting from high temperatures, followed by (3) thick snow layer which compresses the basal layer and results in a hard, dense mass with small crystals, Caevvi is severe for reindeer because it is suitable for growth of snow mould which prevents reindeer from smelling lichens; it probably facilitates accumulation of CO2 under the api.



"Feeding Trench" or linear extension through undisturbed api of a sequential series of suov´dnji. Actual feeding on ground vegetation occurs only at the terminal end of a ciegar. Excavated snow is kicked back, partially filling the trench with snow that sinters and becomes very hard.



Layer of solid ice next to the soil.



Roughly circular site of thin, hard and dense snow caused by deer digging and extending a perimetre expanding into undisturbed api from an original suov´dnji or group of suov´dnji.



Large, hard sculpturings resulting from erosion of kalutoganiq. More precise than the loose terms "zastrugi" or "skavler."



Arrowhead-shaped drift on top of upsik; moves downwind.



Ice crystals that form on cold objects when warm, moist air passes over them.



Hole in snow cover where an animal has plunged for shelter. (pronounced KEY-eppi).



"Finger drift" downwind of small obstruction.



Overhanging drift or "anvil drift."



Fragile, basal layer of api, formed of large, hollow pyramidal or scroll-like crystals arranged in columns.



Snow on the trees.



Bowl-shaped depression in api under coniferous trees.



Fragile, columnar basal layer of api (=pukak).



Drifting or blowing snow.



"Feeding crater" or individual feeding site excavated in the api, separated from other sites by undisturbed api.



Small "ripple marks" which are last remnants of kaioglaq or differential erosion of hard and soft layers.



Wind-hardened tundra snow.



Spot blown bare of snow.



Area of thick snow cover that persists perhaps all summer.





Webmaster's note: Due to html character entity limitation the words Ciegar and Cuok´kiin this document do not have the proper inflection on their first character. There should be an INVERTED ˆ above the letter C or c. This letter could be rendered graphically, but this creates other problems.



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