Monday, March 17, 2008

Winter Loosens its Grip

A sense of relief pervades March as the sun grows stronger and temperatures warm from the depths of winter. This year those depths were seldom deeper than March's worst, but the days were shorter. Harsh conditions lurk like a beast in the gloom. They could pounce at any time during the cold darkness.

Everyone seems to have a sense of accomplishment this time of year. The lovers of winter enjoy the best part of it, with settled snowpack and ample daylight. The lovers of only March have the part of snow season they want. The only unhappy people are the ones who shouldn't live in a northern climate anyway.

March can still serve up subzero nights and bitter days. It also commonly delivers big snowstorms. We just missed one that formed too far offshore. By the satellite view, it would have been a blockbuster. Shake the jet stream a little differently and one of those could romp right over us, as happened with the blizzard of 1993. That was described as "monumental" by one meteorologist at the time. Its cloud shield covered most of the eastern seaboard of the United States at one point. But it was just one of two or three big storms that March.

An event like that could be disastrous with the snowpack we already have. The blizzard of '93 dumped almost four feet of snow here. In addition to roofs that might fail, all that extra water would join the spring flood that can't be too far in the future.

The mountains will still pick up snow. This time of year, the highest ranges might get feet of snow from a system that brings rain and glop to lower elevations.

On the groomed Nordic trails, patrollers and groomers work around sinkholes forming as the earth warms and water flows below the snow. Early snow and a mild winter kept the ground from freezing deeply. Many of these sunken areas formed during the January thaw. The groomers have simply been blading snow into them. Now the annual shift to warmth moves faster than human mechanical devices can act to reverse the effect.

Elsewhere on the groomies, the base is solid down to the ground. The surface changes in the normal spring pattern, hard as a sidewalk at dawn, plush cream cheese for an hour or two and then slush and applesauce until sunset stiffens all the gouges and digs into a treacherous obstacle course for skiers going out too late. There's a subject all its own.

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