Review of: Snow Ecology: An Interdisciplinary Examination of Snow-Covered Ecosystems.

Pruitt, W. O., Jr.

Taiga Biological Station, Department of Zoology, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3T 2N2




Pruitt, W.O., Jr. 2001. Review of: Snow Ecology: An Interdisciplinary Examination of Snow-Covered Ecosystems. Edited by: H.G. Jones, J. W. Pomeroy, D. A. Walker and R. W. Hoham. Cambridge and New York; Cambridge University Press.



This book is the result of the decision by the International Association of Hydrological Sciences and its offspring, the International Commission of Snow and Ice, to form a Snow Ecology Working Group that met in 1993. Some of the material presented at that meeting is discussed in this book.

There is a basic difference between the ecological relations of mammals and birds that inhabit environments having a snow cover that lasts all winter and those where the cover is intermittent or lacking. At the same time, there is also a basic difference between those human cultures that are adapted to a permanent winter snow cover and those that are not. The reactions of various human cultures to snow vary from a joyous, welcoming acceptance to near hysteria when it falls. The culture of western Europe and those derived from it usually look upon snow only as something to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible. Vast sums of money are spent every winter in removing snow from roads, sidewalks, and airstrips. Even in northern regions we continue to construct houses and buildings that trap and accumulate masses of snow in entrances, recessed stairs, and window wells, and our highways departments still plow roads by pushing the berm up the prevailing winds where it collects even more snow over the road. The very abundance of snow seems to have suppressed almost all but the negative aspects of getting rid of it as quickly as possible. In the literature of the sciences that ought to be most concerned there is even yet little to suggest that snow is a major element in the environment of life.

Although some of the early naturalists appreciated the role of snow, the modern period of viewing its role as an ecological factor must date from 1946 when A. N. Formozov published his classic work on the subject (1946. Moscow Society of Naturalists, Materials for the Study of Fauna and Flora U.S.S.R. Zoology, New Series 5:1-152).

In the Preface to the current book, when very briefly discussing the relationship between humans and snow, the editors set the tone for most of the book by emphasizing the negative aspects such as "[t]he relationship between mankind and snow and ice throughout history is ambivalent and has often been epitomized as a struggle for survival in the adverse circumstances of cold, storms, isolation, starvation, and deep snow. On the other hand, snow and ice have fascinated mankind, intrigued the curious mind, and lent substance to artistic expression and sporting achievements" (p. xix). Nowhere in the book is there discussion or even recognition of the close ecological relations of some human cultures to snow cover. There is no treatment of such human adaptations as komatiks, toboggans, pulkas, ahkios, and their variations in size and shape in response to regional variations in duration, thickness, hardness and grain characteristics of snow covers. There is no discussion of such human adaptations as snowshoes, skis, or Siberian snegostupi and the characteristics of these inventions that vary in close agreement with the regional variations in thickness, vertical surface hardness, and duration of the snow cover as well as the physical characteristics (e. g., mass) of the individuals that use them and the functions to which they are put. There is also no mention of such major human inventions as the iglu or the quin-zhee and what physical characteristics of the snow make them possible.

The important subject of snow cover and adaptations of supranivean animals, with its massive scientific literature in many languages, is dismissed by the editors in a rather cavalier fashion in the Preface with only four lines of type and four marginal references. The editors do, however, recommend the classic work on the relations of mammals and birds with snow cover by A. N. Formozov, but incorrectly spell his name both times they use it. The Preface also confounds life in the snow with life in the cold, which require vastly different routes of adaptation.

In the first chapter, Snow Cover and the Climate System, the authors make the important point that all ecosystems - around the globe - are indirectly affected by snow cover because of its role as a component of the world climate system. This chapter contains a valuable but all too brief summary of the possible changes in snow cover regimes with expected warmer global and regional temperatures. Unfortunately, there is no integration of the anticipated physical changes to snow covers with possible ecological changes. Chapter 2, Physical Properties of Snow, includes an extensive discussion of "intercepted snow" (= qali) but ignores the effect of qali accumulation on the inversely related necessary formation of qamaniq, and this latter phenomenon on subnivean temperatures with the consequent cascade of effects on tree vegetation, small mammals, and sometimes small birds. In fact, Figure 2.11 (which depicts "intercepted snow") shows no qamaniq. This chapter includes a description of the interesting occasional reversal of the usual heat flow gradient in a tundra snow cover (upsik). Under intense solar radiation meltwater from the surface of the upsik moves downward until it encounters the cold substrate and it freezes. The phenomenon is well known to Sámi reindeer herders and is called cuokki. It has been implicated in die-offs of Peary Caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi) in the Canadian High Arctic.

Chapter 3, The Chemistry of Snow: Processes and Nutrient Cycling, follows the chemistry of snow from the initial formation of snow crystals, its fall and accumulation, to its eventual melting and incorporation of the nutrients into meltwater and thence into living systems. Chapter 4, Microbial Ecology of Snow and Freshwater Ice with Emphasis on Snow Algae, brings order to the scattered literature on microbial life in snow and freshwater ice, from the first scientific paper on the subject in 1819 to those as recent as 2000. The oft-reported, but poorly understood, phenomena of "red snow," "orange snow," and even "green snow," and the causative organisms, are described and shown in color plates. The life cycles and ecology of some of these organisms are described. The following chapter, The Effects of Snow Cover on Small Animals, is a masterful display of familiarity with a difficult, multilingual scientific literature. The author discusses not only the more familiar tundra and taiga invertebrate snow faunas, but also the small animals of nival and aeolian faunas. Low temperature feeding and possible subnivean food chains are also described from her own extensive field and laboratory studies.

Chapter 6, Snow-Vegetation Interactions in Tundra Environments, described an experimental sequence to determine the effects of altering snow cover characteristics by a series of movable snow fences upwind of an instrumented stretch of Arctic tundra. This is a good example of introducing living organisms into the otherwise rather sterile accounts of studies of snow covers. The final chapter, Tree-Ring Dating of Past Snow Regimes, is a detective story of interpretation of the interacting phenomena of snow crystals, wind, phototropism, and tree growth, complicated by periods of varying snow cover regimes through time. This is a fascinating chapter of real natural history interpretations. The book concludes with a glossary of some of the words used in various chapters.

It is difficult to visualize a niche for this publication. The emphasis on physical relations, mathematical formulas, and models in most of the chapters is heavy and uninteresting reading for field biologists and ecologists, while physicists and meteorologists may be put off by the limited amount of biological taxonomic nomenclature. Too many of the figures are excessively reduced and difficult to interpret. The price is a bit steep for a personal reference, so I suspect that university and research libraries will be the main purchasers of this volume.

William O. Pruitt, Jr. Zoology, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.



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