Lack of snowfall negatively affecting water levels, environment

2013-01-11T00:00:00Z 2013-01-11T22:05:11Z Lack of snowfall negatively affecting water levels, environmentJoyce Russell joyce.russell@nwi.com, (219) 762-1397, ext. 2222 nwitimes.com

While snowblowers are gathering dust in region garages and residents are reveling in not having to shovel the white stuff, some are voicing concerns over the lack of snow so far this season.

Snow is necessary, they say.

"This has been one of the least wintry winters we've had," said Craig Clark, an assistant professor of meteorology at Valparaiso University.

Clark said only about 4.5 inches of snow has fallen in the Valparaiso area this year. Normal snowfall is about 40 inches between November and March.

Clark said the reason we haven't gotten more snow is simple: It hasn't been cold enough. There only have been 10 days this season with temperatures below freezing and on most of those days the conditions have not been right for snow.

"Change like this in our hydrological cycle has significant impacts," said Abigail Derby, climate change ecologist with The Field Museum. "There is just not one reason why there is a lack of snow, and there is not just one impact."

The U.S. Drought Monitor lists Northwest Indiana as being in a moderate drought. Lake Michigan's level is at the lowest point in recorded history, a full 17 inches below what it was last year at this time and 28 inches below the long-term average, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

And, while the forecast calls for rain today and Saturday, the rain will not make up for what a blanket of snow accomplishes for the area's ecology.

"A lack of snow could play out pretty badly for agriculture in this area," said Derby, as soil loses its protective winter cover and continues to dry.

"Much of the biological productivity happens in the winter," said Richard Whitman, of the U.S. Geological Survey in Porter.

Basically, snow acts as an insulator during the winter, protecting not only the soil from evaporation, but also protects seedlings before their emergence in the spring. Freezing temperatures and snow also cause a myriad of pests to either die or hibernate.

Without the snow and its protection, seeds may not sprout and pests may appear earlier or in greater numbers, Whitman said.

A lack of snow also may have a detrimental effect on the Karner blue butterfly, said Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Ranger Bruce Rowe. The eggs of the endangered butterfly are laid on native lupine, about 1 inch above the ground and their survivability is dependent on snowfall in the winter to provide insulation.

In addition, a snow cover melts slowly in the spring to replenish ground water, while a rainfall can simply become runoff, not providing replenishment.

"There is a severe issue with the lack of snow," said Al Bridges, who has worked for Doyne's Marina along the Burns Waterway in Portage since 1980.

"The snow melts off slower in the spring. It soaks into the ground and runs through the tributaries into the lake," he said, adding the unseasonably warm winter also is preventing an ice cap to form on Lake Michigan. Ice, he said, slows evaporation of lake water.

While water levels are usually down during the winter, Bridges said there are major concerns this year.

The water levels at the mouth of the Burns Waterway are so low that water in the basin no longer touches the rock walls. Fishermen are fishing on dry land within the basin, that, at times would be covered by at least 3 feet of water.

Bridges said if the lake level continues to fall and is not replenished in the spring, there is a concern for not only boaters to get their crafts out onto the lake, but for others who depend on boating and tourism as a source of income.

Derby, who studies climate change, believes this year without snow is more than just an anomaly.

"If we only had one year like that it would be an anomaly. We are having an increased frequency of winters like this. We will still have a lot of whopper snowfalls, but we will probably have more rain than snow," Derby said.

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