How many times have you heard someone say that they prefer rain to snow because they don’t have to shovel it? I know I’ve said it many times just this year! Have you ever noticed how life changes when the air temperature falls below freezing? Generally speaking, freezing happens at zero degrees centigrade, but evidence of freezing can happen when the air temperature is around plus 2 degrees. For instance, the other day when I went out to my truck (2°C) the windshield was covered with ice. Looking around I also saw ice on puddles and frost on the field. Earlier in January, it was snowing when the air temperature was about 2°C. Unfortunately, events don’t seem to happen the other way around; that is, warm weather effects don’t happen when the air temperature is below 0°C!
We are very fortunate to be living where the warm wet waves of the Pacific Ocean air track over us, bringing warm, wet rain and not snow. But periodically at this time of year, cold low temperatures may move through. Or a cold, high-pressure system in the interior can push out westward bringing freezing temperatures. Also at this time of year, cold air is never far above us in the atmosphere as evidenced by snow on the hills.
Zero degrees centigrade is a magical temperature for water turning water to crystal. Those crystals fall from clouds as snow; it then shows on your lawn as frost and floats on my pond as ice. And it shows on our driveways and sidewalks as something that has to be removed. If it is just a thin layer of frost it can be melted by adding salt. Salt is effective down to about minus 6°C.
As the temperature falls below freezing, the water lines to the chicken house freeze. More importantly, the lines to the chicken waterers freeze. In the winter the chickens need more energy to keep warm so they conserve by laying fewer eggs as well as eating more food. With more food consumption they need more water! So frozen watering lines is a serious problem. The ducks don’t mind the cold so much; they can stand on ice in their bare feet. But generally, they seek out areas on the pond that are still ice-free and this can be found wherever the water is moving. The ducks along with the cats, the dogs, and the sheep, eat more to keep warm. And what about me? Freezing temperatures means wearing more socks, a warmer coat, layers of clothing and maybe gloves. I remember a number of years ago when I went camping in the snow. It got down to minus 17°C. We had a tent, a fire and hot chocolate going, but I was feeling colder and was moving slower than usual. Then I realized I wasn’t wearing a hat. Shortly after putting the hat on I felt warmer and was moving faster. Ever since that experience, I swear that one of the best methods of staving off hypothermia is to wear a warm hat!
But whatever effects of the cold we feel wildlife feel them even more. Wild birds have a difficult time finding food when the world is covered in snow. That’s one of the reasons we feed them. When snow is on the ground, forests consisting of large trees are important to the survival of many species of animals. Have you noticed that when the snow melts it is gone from the forest much sooner than from fields? This is a sure sign that the forests stay warmer than open areas of land; the forest also holds back a lot of snow in their canopy. South-facing slopes are slightly warmer than anywhere else, since they receive more sun and that’s where critical wintering areas for deer and elk can be found. The forest provides a warmer area, becomes snow free earlier, and provides forage earlier. For some reason, wildlife hasn’t learned about wearing a hat!
You might wonder why I used the title South of Zero. When you use a map, you usually put the north uppermost and the south is lower. If you have an old style mercury or alcohol thermometer you mount it on the wall vertically. The mercury rises when it’s warm and falls when it’s cold. So, South of Zero means: when it’s freezing. It’s only in the northern hemisphere where we think it gets warmer when you go south!!