That Dirty Snow is Alive! And It Just Might Improve Your Quality of Life

Mr. Justin Chapman, CVC Advisor

If anything, New Englanders are known as a hearty bunch, not least for withstanding the yearly onslaught of winter with its barrage of ice, snow, sleet, and the occasional passing polar vortex. And no one complains about it — unless you’re “from away.” Yankees are fond of saying, “if you don’t like the weather, just wait ten minutes.” Yet this stoic veneer in the face of ever changing varieties of inclement weather belies the giddy promise of spring. As winter winds down in New England, ice and snow begin to loosen their grip on the landscape, and signs of vernal shifts begin to emerge, sometimes literally right out of the snow. By March steam pours from the vents of sugar-houses as syrup-makers begin boiling maple sap down into Vermont’s signature liquid. On those same late winter days, when the temps begin to push into the 50s and the streams begin to run full of snow-melt, a hiker or skier might happen upon a patch that looks at first like someone came along and emptied a ten pound bag of ground black pepper all over the snow. If you stop and take a closer look, however, you might see that that black pepper is a teeming microcosm of life.

What at first looks like dirty snow turns out to be a millimeter-long hexapod, the springtail, or as they’re colloquially known, “snow fleas” — and these snow fleas just might hold the key to some major scientific advances. Various springtails exist all over the planet, but they somehow manage to persist even in extreme winter climates like Antarctica and northern New England. These intrepid snow enthusiasts turn up by the thousands per square meter, up to 10,000 of them in fact, according to legendary naturalist David Attenborough. Even at high elevations, in late winter springtails emerge from the snow in huge numbers on warm afternoons in order to feed on decomposing leaves or moss. Snow fleas represent not only the inevitable arrival of spring in the northern woods, but further evidence of nature’s amazing ability to adapt and survive in harsh climates — plus they have a couple of potential benefits to humankind.

Snow fleas on Stark Mountain.  Photo by Justin Chapman

Snow fleas on Stark Mountain. Photo by Justin Chapman

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