Have you noticed how trees hollow out melted sleeves from snow around their boles as our arms would if we could hold them long enough in a snow blanket? And have you wondered why winter fog sinking over open fields is denser than in adjacent woodland? I never gave them much thought until a recent winter walk, but isn’t it often so that the familiar and banal is suddenly thrust to attention to look fresh and strange?
The brain suppresses absorption with too much detail until the detail becomes important or something or someone points it out. I can’t put my finger on what drew my attention to melting snow and thinning fog one day, and it wasn’t more important than the other stimuli bombarding my sense organs. Most noise is filtered out in the conscious brain to avoid being swamped and making us go crazy. But looking intently at something commonplace for the first time can stir uncommon curiosity.
Almost everyone prefers a simple explanation to an obscure one, which is the wisdom of Occam’s razor. When I had students in class they loathed to hear me say: “I have several hypotheses to offer for this observation, and there is evidence for all of them …” That was a way of admitting ignorance without sounding ignorant. Nature is more complicated than we are sometimes wont to admit or accept.
We are drawn to the single explanation, but when we look more closely and are better informed we often find two, and on even closer examination we realize there are four, and then we begin to wonder if we’ll ever get to the bottom of the mystery. We are tempted to turn back to simplicity and turn our backs on provisional knowledge to cling to intuition. I don’t believe in fairy stories, but I know the temptation to be willfully ignorant and it must be resisted.
There is a bottom to the pit of curiosity, a place where facts are finally robust against doubt, but plumbing the depths can take a long time, even generations of science and philosophy. If we boast about our knowledge we fool ourselves because science is still young. Besides, isn’t mystery something to celebrate except when it holds down human welfare or harms our environment (basically the same things)? Mystery is a call to act and understand and is often more intriguing than the mere appearance of knowledge, and perhaps that’s why it is so popular in fiction.
I started musing about snow crystals melting around trees and foggy water droplets vanishing in shelterbelts. Why do they?
Elementary physics offers an easy first answer to my sudden curiosity. Tree bark absorbs some radiant energy, especially the darker shades, even on a cold day when we hardly feel heat of the sun on our faces. It may seem too trivial to change the physical state of water in snow and fog, but the heat stored by day is slowly released to help a slow thaw continue at night. The scientist wants to test a bare theory by experiment. Next time it snows I will check a natural experiment by comparing the melt around maples and oaks with the lighter boles of silver birches, which should in theory remain snow-bound longer. And here is another question for an inquisitive walker. Does snow melt as quickly on rocks as tree trunks of the same color, and if not why the difference?
A second explanation is that trees offer shelterbelts against chill winds. More heat is lost by radiation from open ground on cold days and freezing nights than among trees, which also reduce wind velocity to stabilize a warmer zone. If you ever get stranded on a bitter night in the countryside it’s wise to find shelter in woods. But it’s hard to see how shelter accounts for melted ‘sleeves’ of snow around trees.
Casting around for other explanations, I wonder how much heat is generated by the thin cylinder of living cells under the bark when trees are looking dead in winter. To be alive is to be engaged in combustion because heat is the by-product of metabolism, generating 500 kJ per mole of oxygen when complete, to be precise.
It seems unlikely the low ebb of metabolism in sleeping winter trees warms the snow, and heat is more likely to be generated on tree bark than under it. To think of microbes and fungi is to remember hot compost and sweaty manure, as well as bubbles of carbon-dioxide popping in the air trap of a home brewer’s dewar. They can be sources of prodigious heat, and commercial breweries sometimes struggle to keep temperatures down.
Tidewater Virginia is marching toward spring and unlikely to see more hard weather so my questions about silver birches and rocks will dangle until I am trudging through snow again next winter.
Next Post: Snow tracks
I think the snow will melt more quickly on rocks than trees because rocks have greater thermal mass and more latent heat stored, but could have this completely backwards – physics was never my thing!