Prairie snow – After the thaw

By Carol / December 31, 2010 /

We had unseasonably warm December weather yesterday – 61 degrees! How great is that in the dead of winter?  I watched snow melt, creating streams that ran off, mostly down storm sewers. Except in the prairie.

Snow in the prairie was deeper, held by prairie plants residue. The ground was sheltered and – I presume – the temperature in the prairie did not rise as high as it did in open areas.

Other than an interesting observation, does the speed of snow melt matter? It does, of course, as Iowan’s saw these past years after heavy snow melted rapidly, filling streams and rivers to overflowing. Devastating floods followed.

Where prairie exists, nature has a hand in moderating the runoff.

One feature of prairie plants is an extensive root system. The roots go deep and wide, acting like a big sponge to soak up rain and keep it from running off. I assumed this was a feature that played out in the summer time. But we know that even a sponge can get so full it won’t hold all the water. Now I see how it works even in the winter.

Plant residue above ground holds the snow and keeps it from melting so fast. It holds the snow until the roots have a chance to catch up. Above and below ground, the prairie is working together to manage the moisture.

The prairie snow is melting. Sixty-plus degrees will make that happen. But it’s slower. I’ll be watching the prairie snow as we move into spring.  I can see how the prairie process will be a good thing.

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