The Shape of Snow

Snow forms, falls, fills our world with white.

But odd things can happen after it arrives. Warming, chilling, melting. More cold. Now unusual patterns appear in the leftover snow.

Snow designs

Snow fingers

Snow critters

After the latest warm spell when temperatures hovered either side of freezing these “leftovers” disappeared.

But fresh snow is back. For two days it has fallen steadily, nearly a foot now — if conditions are right the trees may once host a gallery of abstract art.

Snow Fleas

At first glance it looked like tiny bits of dust. Or pepper scattered on the snow.

Down on my knees I noticed that the “pepper” was moving. Hmmm.

Turns out I was watching snow fleas cavorting  on a “warm” winter afternoon when the temperature had risen to a couple of degrees above freezing.

Despite their name, snow fleas aren’t fleas at all — they’re springtails. Tucked under the abdomen is a tail-like structure called a furcula. When this tiny critter releases the furcula it catapults the owner into the air — hence the name, springtail.

Springtails are great decomposers, feeding on decaying plant material and soil bacteria. They’re active year-round but because of their size it’s unlikely you’ll see them any time but in the winter. The ones I found were about 1 – 2 mm long, shorter than an eyelash.

My snowy footprints filled with snow fleas one afternoon. Like some other “cold-blooded” animals, springtails contain a natural antifreeze that keeps their bodies from freezing. (Springtails in Antarctica are tougher than our Alberta species. They’ve been seen hopping about at -38C (-31F). )

Snow fleas in foot prints

The springtails clustered together by the thousands. By comparison, my ring looks huge.

Snow fleas and ring for size

This closer view shows the antennae and the 3 pairs of legs. One larger springtail, toward the bottom centre, even shows the furcula. You can see more detailed closeups here.

Snow fleas

I’m not sure why the springtails congregated in such huge numbers. A winter love fest?

Lots of snow fleas

I watched these amazing little critters over several days. When the temperature dropped, they disappeared. But perhaps they’ll return with the next chinook.

Snow fleas / Springtails   Hypogastrura nivicola (?)

The Ice Garden

It was a quirk of light. Without it I would have missed the tiny ice garden on my window.

Among the little plants I spotted fern trees, maple leaves, thistle heads, shrubs and grass, perhaps an elm or maybe a beech. The biggest is less than a centimetre, not even half an inch.

The garden is growing on the outer pane of a double-paned window, facing north onto snow-draped spruce trees. Not sure when it took root — last night it was about -30C (-20F) so perhaps that was enough to sprout this grace and beauty.

Bumping up the blue levels on the photo created this fairyland effect.