City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

November 17, 2016

November 17th

Filed under: Seasons, Weather — canopus56 @ 9:50 pm

First Snowfall

3:00 p.m. Last night and into this morning, the first significant snowfall of this fall-to-winter 2016-2017 water season occurred. The water season begins in October and ends in April of the following year. There is about two or three inches of snow covering the canyon through milepost 2.0. The storm front has passed, and in the afternoon, high winds move bands of broken clouds over the canyon. The temperature has dropped to the mid-thirties and the sky is mostly overcast, so there is little warmth. The insects have gone but the cold is still not severe enough to drive birds close to the road in the wind protected canyon bottom. Only a few Black-billed magpies and Black-Hooded chickadees can be heard in distance hidden in the scrub oak forest.

When the Sun does break sporadically break through the broken clouds, the canyon gives a preview of what locals call “a perfect Wasatch winter day.” The bare tree limbs are covered in a frosting of light snow. It is bitter cold and windy, but the Sun warms all that is not in shade, so moving outside is enjoyable. The snow is a clean white, and small drops fall from all horizontal limbs where the Sun is beginning to melt snow. These are the kind of winter days that keep city resident’s coming into the canyons of the Wasatch Front Mountain Range, including City Creek. A perfect winter day is an ephemeral state that lasts one or two days. Snow quickly melts or develops an ice crust, and dust and blown dirt turn the snow to an unappealing color. The sun is replaced by overcast skies and a perfect day becomes dreary.

This first snow is one of the major markers of the change of seasons from summer to fall (October 21st). The previous major marker was the day of last leaf fall (November 10th). The difference between the date of last leaf fall and first snow is small, and this indicates the trees know when to fall asleep. Despite climate change, the mean date of first snowfall has remained constant. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides data on the first date that one-half-inch or snow falls at the Salt Lake International Airport. From 1900 to 1989, the mean date of first snowfall in Salt Lake City was November 11th. From 1990 to 2015, the first date of snowfall on average occurs on November 12th. But climate change is reflected in other meteorological measures, such as declining total annual precipitation.

I mark this seasonal change with another more subtle difference: the change in the ground temperature. During previous cold snaps in October and early November, when I place my hand on the wall next to my bed, the wall is warm relative to the air. The wall and the earth behind it are emitting heat. This morning, the wall is now cold. It has taken Fall almost two months since its start on September 23rd to draw all the heat from the ground. The same occurs with the ground in the canyon. With the warmed earth no longer opposing it, winter’s cold can advance.

City residents long for the day of first snowfall. As temperatures drop, they are ready to begin skiing, preferably before Thanksgiving, and while waiting for first snowfall, they are discontented. First snowfall releases their anxiety for they now know that real snow is coming. Local commercial weather forecasters have made a fine art out of puffing the extent and severity of these first storms. The snow will melt tomorrow, but in order to encourage out-of-state tourists to book trips to the state in December, the forecasters exaggerate the description of the storm and make it seem as if the heavens have opened and buried the city. They view this weather salesmanship, which is rebroadcast by the national tourism media, as a public service and as their special contribution to the local economy. In the canyon, the release of first-snow tension is evidenced by several pairs of runners and walkers, invigorated by and despite of the true cold brought by this storm, rapidly going up and down the canyon with wide similes on their faces.

At mile 0.2, there is a single tree that still retains bright red leaves. It is too far from the road to allow close inspection and to make an identification.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on November 17th, 1858, he notes how different light is in the Fall and how this differing light affects our perception. Some things are unremarkable in the summer light, but these same objects stand out in Fall light.

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