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Episode 5: How Do You Survive in Snow Country?

Kids Ask Why
Kids Ask Why
Episode 5: How Do You Survive in Snow Country?

Kelly School

This season’s podcast follows Mrs. Lowenfel’s 4th and 5th Grade Class at Kelly School in Teton County Wyoming. The kids had many questions for our experts and lots to share about the American West. This episode features Stella, Bowen, Shelby, and Elise.

Corey Anco 

Corey Anco is the Curator of the Draper Natural History Museum. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science from Lewis University, a Master of Environmental Management from Duke University, and a Master of Science in Biology from Fordham University. He has worked with the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Geological Survey. Anco has held additional positions with the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative and Wildlife Conservation Society before joining the Draper Natural History Museum in 2017. Outside of the museum, he enjoys cooking, playing guitar, and backpacking in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Frank Carus

Frank Carus is the director of the Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center. Frank has had a love for snow as he climbed El Capitan in Yosemite National Park at age 19. He works diligently to monitor the avalanche center and numerous weather stations in Wyoming. Franks early working years supported his climbing and skiing obsessions by guiding and building things out of wood.

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Why, why, why, why?

In Wyoming it snows less than other places, like Russia and Ukraine and all that. So I’m just wondering why that is?

Why, why, why, why?

Why do avalanche bombs stop avalanches from happening?

Welcome to the kids ask why podcast. Production by Wyoming Public Media and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. This season the podcast is following fourth and fifth grade class from Kelley School in Teton County, Wyoming. We have lots of questions and lots to share about the American West.

Elise: Hello, my name is Elsie. I am from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and I’m in fourth grade. And I think what’s interesting about snow science is like how it can get sticky, and then it can get like sugary and then it can get really hard and icy. Stella.

Stella:  Okay, my name is Stella. I’m from Jackson Hole Wyoming and I think snow is interesting. Well, I chose this because how animals can survive under the snow and how snow is like cold, because snow is just water that kinda like got cold. But like, how is it white? And how did it like, get cold? Bowen.

Bowen: My name is Bowen and I’m from Kelly, Wyoming.  What I wonder about snow is, um, I know that it depends on where on the equator you are. But it’s like since Russia gets more snow than we do and we’re at the same equator level. I don’t know if that’s what called. That’s just what I wonder why.

Shelby: Hi, I’m Shelby. I live in Jackson, Wyoming and I am in fifth grade. And to me how snow science is interesting is, I’m super interested in how they form.

Bowen: Today, we are talking with Corey Anco who is the interim curator of the Draper Natural History Museum in Cody, Wyoming.

Stella:  So my questions are, how do animals survive under the snow? Because snow is cold. And if it was warm when the snow melts, and under the snow, how do animals eat and breathe?

Corey:   So let’s start with the first one. You know, how do they live there? Animals are going to do one of three things when you know an environment changes. They’re going to migrate, like elk, they migrate, you know, to an area that’s more, that’s better for the conditions where they can find more food. Some animals like bears, they hibernate. They’re not active in those conditions. They store up things like body fat and reserves to stay to stay warm. And then you have the other these other organisms that we’re going to talk about that are active in the snow. And those are adapted to the cold environment. So we have migration, hibernation or adaptation. Well, who might you think lives in the snow? We have some hints behind me. What do you see here? 

Red fox Photo: National Parks Gallery

Stella:  Well, I see a weasel that’s white, a fox stepping onto the snow, a wolf, another white weasel in the snow chasing a little mouse.

Corey: Yeah, so we have small mammals. We have a reptile down here. We have a snake and they’re building cavities. Right? So how do they survive in those conditions? There is air vents that are created either by the burrowing activity of the animals or by vegetation branches. You know, from, let’s say a tree shrub that’s growing in the ground extends up into the surface. There’s little air pockets there, so you have airflow, and then the neat thing about snow is, it’s an insulator. So you think of like an igloo, inside the igloo, it’s warmer inside. So beneath about six to eight inches of snow, the temperature stays relatively stable, just hovering at about 32 degrees or freezing temperature. These organisms are equipped to handle that that kind of temperature. So regardless of how cold it is above the surface, you know, we get into negative temperatures, that snow acts as an insulating blanket, and that’s how many of these organisms can continue to live.

Long-tailed weasel Photo: NPS/Jim Peaco

As far as what they eat well the herbivores, so things like the mice and the voles, they’ll eat seeds, they’ll subsist or they’ll consume a shrub bark, the bark of shrubs. They’ll also feed on grasses that are below the ground, or that are below that snow layer growing out of the ground, but then you also have predators as we see. We have the weasels that feed on the mice and the voles, but then above the ground, we have the fox and we have birds of prey. Things like raptors, so owls and hawks, and coyotes as well. These animals all have excellent hearing and they can detect movement and tunneling activity, up to 30 yards away in the snow. That’s how they hunt and find prey inside that subnivean zone. 

Stella:  I think that’s really cool. 

Corey: Yeah, its pretty neat. It’s kind of like “neature”.

Stella:  So under the snow, how do animals eat? And then under the snow how do animals breathe?

Corey:    Yeah, yeah, so we all need oxygen to breathe, and so do all these mammals. They will create air events that will help with airflow. In some of them, it’s the voles, I believe, will create complexes underneath the snow. They have separate rooms for eating separate rooms for sleeping, and separate rooms, for where they use the bathroom. They can make these different compartments and all between those compartments, you have air circulating and flowing between the surface and those different cavities. They are still able to access that food underneath the ground because as the snow falls, it’ll bury some of that food source, but they’re tunneling underneath all of that. And that’s how they access things like vegetation or seeds to consume.

Bowen: So my first question what is the biggest animal that lives under the snow? And where does it live?

Corey: The weasels will hunt, but they don’t necessarily live there. They may make a den or a cavity that’s slightly above ground. So I’m going to have to go with one of the rodent species, but as far as which one’s the biggest, you might have me there. I don’t know off the top of my head. 

Bowen: Yeah. I know that there’s crocodiles that live under ice but that doesn’t really count as snow on frozen lakes. But yeah, I don’t know. And then my second one is how do animals under the snow move? Like, how do they dig tunnels really fast or something like that.

Corey: So when the snow first falls, it’s very powdery as you get more and more snowfall.  If you ever think about when you have to shovel the driveway, if you wait too long, and it starts to warm up and then it gets cold again, what happens to the snow?

Bowen: It freezes.

Corey: Yeah, 

Bowen: It hardens. 

Corey: So as it melts, it condenses and freezes again, and that it becomes a kind of a crusty and a difficult layer. But when it first falls when you get a lot of snowfall, and if it stays dry, and it doesn’t heat up right away, then it’s very easy to move that snow around. So the burrowing activity, they’ll use their face, and they’ll use their front paws to make tunnels into the snow. And then as more snow falls, they kind of have those first tunnels built and they’re able to move around and as that layer above them, kind of hardens from freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing, they kind of have their tunnels established. Another important thing to think about is if you are a mouse, and you’re close to a bush, as that snowfall is that snow is going to fall on the bush first and leave the ground underneath you open and dry. So they may hunker there and as more snow falls, then they’ll start burrowing out so that becomes there main cavity.

Bowen: I see so how many types live under the snow and also where could I, where would you find the animals that live under snow like anywhere in Jackson? Like somewhere.

Corey: There’s many different types of wildlife many different species including plants that live under the snow. One interesting tidbit is that photosynthesis, we know that plants acquire energy from the sun and that’s a process called photosynthesis. While they can still produce that energy from the sun, several feet below the snow, so that’s how vegetation can still survive, even though it may be covered by snow. You have the vegetation, but then you have all your insects, you have reptiles that can live under the snow, you have mammals, and depending on the species of birds, some organisms may spend time under there. Because again, there’s an insulating layer, the snow is insulating.

Now, where can you find some of these areas, oftentimes, we’re going to look for kind of an open meadow or a plain ecosystem. Places where you have like a lot of sagebrush, a community of sagebrush, or you have a plains or a meadow. The Elk National Wildlife Refuge, for example, it’s relatively flat down, then you have all the native grasses and vegetation growing there. As snow accumulates over there, if you were to walk out there, you may see little evidence of these tunnels. What you want to look for is holes in the snow, and then little footprints.

Bowen: Okay, and my fourth question, kind of third forth was, like, I thought that like, the equator was kind of, um, where it’s snowed more and snowed less. But it’s like, in Wyoming, it snows less than other places like Russia and Ukraine and all that. So I’m just wondering why that is?

Corey: Yeah, yeah. We have the equator is kind of that that midline, zero degrees of latitude and right. And as you increase distance in both directions, from he equator, you reach the poles, the poles of the earth. The Earth is tilted, right, it’s a sphere that’s tilted on an axis. As that rotates around the sun, you know, the, the intensity of the sun reaching the earth is kind of at its peak there at the equator and as you extend distance from the equator, it’s like, if you were to stand out in the sun, and you only have a, you know, that central kind of beam on you. As you know, right there where that sun is shining is very bright and warm and hot but as you increase distance away from that, it’s cooler. Then also topography has some something to do with that as well. As you increase in elevation, it’s cooler as well. So even at the equator, it may be very warm there near sea level but as you get several meters several 1000 meters up in elevation, the air temperature is cooler.

Stella:  Okay, so what I learned was animals under the snow, it’s really cool to learn about them. That was the first thing I learned. And then the second thing I learned was, it’s warm under there because the, the snow, like keeps the heat inside because it’s like it’s packed in so the heat stays in there. Okay, Bowen.

Bowen: What I learned is that there’s probably that there’s like bigger and more animals under the snow, and stuff like that. For me, I didn’t really know that the ferrets lived under the snow, that was kind of a new one to me.

Shelby: Today, we’re talking to Frank Carus. He’s a director of the Bridger Teton Avalanche Center in Teton Village, Wyoming.

Elise: So my first question is, why do no snowflakes look alike?

Snowflake crystal

Frank: Wow, that’s a great question. Lots of snowflakes look similar and that depends on the temperature at which they form way up in the sky. Depending on how quickly they grow, they will grow large or small. If they grow slowly, from in cold temperatures, from way up high, they’ll grow really long arms, like the ones you cut out a paper and when it’s warmer, oftentimes they’ll just be much smaller or they’ll get coated in white stuff called rime. So to tell you the truth, I don’t know why none of them look alike other than just to give us all something to wonder about.

Elise: I know like, it’s like hydrogen or hydrogen doesn’t go together. But why are they the shapes they are? And why are like they mainly hexagon? 

Frank: I think it’s because of the way those crystals bond to each other, the water molecules, when they’re cold, they form those crystalline lattices that you might have studied about a little in chemistry, if you talked about that. And there was a pattern tall that may create the pattern that you ended up seeing in the snowflake.

Elise: So how deep can snow get, like in a season? And how deep can it get?

Frank: Oh, it can be, you know, depending on where you are, if you’re in a really wet environment, or wet mountain range, like the Cascades along the Northwest or British Columbia and Canada, you could have 10 or 15 feet on the snow on the ground pretty easily. You know, where it would cover you know, comes up to the edge of the roof of a house. And that usually happens at higher elevations. Sometimes, I was on a ski tour in British Columbia and to get into the hut we had to climb down stairs that were made out of snow to get into the front door. And it was like a 15 foot A framed building. And it was pretty much buried. 

Elise: Oh,wow snow can get really, really deep. And another question in it. Why like some mountains like the Tetons, the snow never melt, even in the summer,

Frank: Because they’re high enough to stay cold. In that cold weather, preserves the snow and in some mountain ranges those permanent snowfields start to move, and once they start moving downhill, we call them a glacier.

Elise: The question is, how do you like save the dude from an avalanche or a personal avalanche because we learned the materials and how to use them but we didn’t learn how to dig them up. We dug up a backpack.

Beacon checkpoint

Frank: To save a person that’s buried in an avalanche you have to work really quickly. It would be you know, the best way to save that person was if you were the one skiing with them and you immediately saw them caught by the avalanche. And you keep eyes on where they were going, then you use your beacon to do a search for their beacon, which is on them and beeping. That helps you know where you need to go to get a really good location and know exactly where they are and then you dig down with the probe and find the person. The best thing to do was to not let that dude get buried.

Elise: So I kind of have two questions that go with that. And one of them is what if the person doesn’t have a beacon.

Frank: In that case, you look for clues like a gloved hand poking up out of the snow or something that might help you know where they are. Then beyond that, you really need to use that probe and identify the most likely places where they would be buried up against a tree or in a little depression in the ground for a flat spot, any anywhere where snow piles up. Bad news, those people get caught in an avalanche and they’re not wearing a beacon, they usually don’t survive.

Shelby: Okay, so my first question, how can the weak layer not like, packed together with the layer on top? 


Frank: If you imagine a whole bunch of little pieces of rice in a jar and then you put a bunch of walnuts in the jar on top. That’s kind of what old snow with new snow on top of that looks like. So those little rice grains if they’re a little bit sticky like snow is and they’d all stick together. But the walnuts that are a lot bigger, they’re not touching nearly as many little walnuts next to them. They might be touching in two or three spots so they’re not very strong. Those pieces of walnuts are those walnuts aren’t cohesive, don’t stick a walnuts also don’t stick to the rice very well because there’s not a lot of contact. That makes sense. 

Shelby: Yeah. My second question is how much weight does it take to make the snow fracture up at the top?

Frank: Oh, good question. And that really depends on the structure of the snow itself. And how strong it is. Is it walnuts or is it rice grains? Rice grains that are stuck together would be really well bonded. We call it sinter. S-i-n-t-e-r. That bond is really strong, so it would take much more than the weight of a person, maybe more than the weight of a car. There is snow that are less, that are much bigger and stuck together, or they have a weak layer beneath them. Like say those walnuts get covered over by another layer of rice like snow. Then those walnuts can fracture and break, which would allow the slab of rice above it also break. In that case, it might only take the weight of a single person or even an animal.

Shelby: Oh, cool. Okay, and then my third question is, why do avalanche bombs stop avalanche avalanches from happening?

Blasting for avalanche control

Frank: Well, it’s kind of a little technical bit of trickery there. They actually start avalanches, and they make the avalanches before the avalanches get really big, or in such a way that ski patrollers or department of transportation workers can make sure that nobody’s in the way. With those bombs, or the Gazex things, what they’re doing is they’re causing an avalanche when it’s safe for that avalanche to occur.

Shelby: One last question. Have you ever been caught in an avalanche? Or do you know someone that’s ever been caught in an avalanche?

Frank: Yes to both questions. It’s really scary. Like, have you ever gone to the beach? 

Shelby: Yeah. 

Frank:  And, swam in the waves? You know, sometimes a wave gets a little too big and pushes yo under and you swirl around for a while. And just for that instant, you think, oh, boy, this is really bad. That’s what happens when you get caught in an avalanche? 

Shelby:  That’s scary. One of my questions is, do more animals caused avalanches or do more people cause avalanches?

Frank: Well, we don’t really have any way to track numbers of how many avalanches get caught. We do know that they cause avalanches from time to time. Also think to a certain extent animals are a little smart about avalanches. They don’t go up on steep slopes that much. They’re usually looking for grassy spots and shallow snow. And they also, like the elk in Jackson Hole like, to hang out in the valley. My guess is it’s probably a toss up. It’s pretty close. Even though there are a lot more animals in the woods running around than there are people. My guess is they’re roughly the same. But that’s just a wild guess.

Shelby: One of my biggest questions was how come all the snow doesn’t pack together? That was probably one of my biggest questions. And it was it, the answer was incredible, honestly.

Elsie: So I learned how to rescue somebody from the avalanche and all sorts of tools but that wasn’t on kids ask why. I will also learn that you usually don’t survive if you don’t have a beacon. But if you don’t, they find clues like a glove or your finger sticking out from the snow, but they usually can’t find you. So, wear a beacon while you go skiing.

Shelby: And what I also really liked was, they actually don’t have the answer. If more animals cause avalanches or people?

All: That’s why we ask why.