This Winter, explained.

Some of our winter weather is controlled by a weather oscilliation know as the North Atlantic Oscilliation, or NAO. This is defined by the difference in atmospheric pressure between an area above Iceland and above the Azores. Ordinarily, low pressure in the winter sits over Iceland, and high pressure over the Azores, and this creates the Polar Vortex, which is simply wind and weather spinning counter-clockwise around the north pole. Picture the two pressure systems as gate keepers, keeping the cold wind spinning around the pole. This strong low pressure over Iceland also draws air from the south west across Eastern North America, giving us somewhat more mild air. Weather scientists call this a teleconnection, or linking of pressure systems across broad geography.

This winter, extraordinary high pressure sat over Greenland, matched by high pressure over Alaska. This caused a breakdown in the polar vortex, causing cold arctic air to dump southward, on top of us. This cold air spilling south is replaced by warmer continental air. A similar event happened last winter as well. Scientists are blaming our colder than normal temperatures and our increased precipitation on this unusual pattern.  Much research is taking place now on this event, known as a Warm Arctic/ Cold Continent.

Average Pressure Pattern

High Pressure, February 2010

The reason for this is a disturbing lack of arctic ice. In January, there was a record setting amount of missing ice in the Arctic, about twice the size of Texas. In the summer, more heat is absorbed by the ocean, which releases in the fall, warming the air above and causing the high pressure. Ocean temperatures are well documented to influence weather patterns, such as the El Nino events, or even hurricane patterns in the Atlantic ocean. And most weather researchers are laying the blame of the lack of arctic ice right at the feet of global warming.

This weather pattern has been breaking down the last couple of weeks, as low pressure is forming in the arctic, creating more sea ice, keeping the cold air locked in the polar vortex. It may be that the groundhog was correct, and our exceptionally snowy and cold winter may be coming to an end.

Rikert Ski Touring

I believe one of the greatest secrets at Middlebury College is the Rikert Ski Touring Center, located at Breadloaf Campus up in Ripton. Home to the Middlebury Nordic teams, as well as my daughter’s Middlebury High School team, this gem of a ski area has very well groomed trails, wonderful staff, and, this year, plenty of snow.

This coming weekend is the Bill Koch Ski Festival, so in honor of the weekend I’ve made something for the kids to play with, if yours are anything like mine. I’ve converted some Arc GIS files to a Google Earth File, so now you can fly around Rikert in Google Earth and see where you went skiing for the day. Chester Harvey in the Geography department has made a new trail map for Rikert based on this shapefile, and I’ve taken the trail names both off of that new map, as well as the older traditional map.  So the Google Earth file is still a rough draft, and some of the trail names may be a little off, but it’s still fun.

Right click here, and choose Save As, then don’t forget where that is. Clicking on that file should open it in the right program. Naturally, you will need Google Earth installed on your computer. I’ve been having bad blog luck, and just clicking on the file itself will probably lead to a page of gobbledigook.

Winter Carnival-Snow Sculptures

There is a lot more to snow sculpting than meets the eye. Our department does quite a few things, but probably one of the most unusual is making giant blocks of snow for the annual Winter Carnival snow sculpture contest.

Not this year, obviously, but some years the primary ingredient can be a little tricky. I’ve heard stories of past years: hauling snow from breadloaf, or moving it from Kohn Field. This year, we merely pushed snow up in piles right out in the quad near where we need them. Didn’t even have to push from any sort of distance.

We start with the box itself. Hopefully you’ll get a feel for the size from the picture-it’s about 7′ tall and about 6′ wide. 4 panels mate together, and then are held by ratchet straps.

We then start some mixing. Yes, with a backhoe. We’re talking quite a bit of snow here. By adding water to a fluffy snow it packs better, like the perfect snowman snow you used to wait for growing up. We blend it until it is about the consistancy of mashed potatoes. Some years this part of the process is miserable, what with the cold and all. This year, the day started in the teens, but quickly warmed into the upper 30’s.

Next, we start adding the snow to the molds. I’ve always been a big fan of the power of hydraulics, never more so than figuring out how to get several yards of snow 8 feet up in the air.

The snow gets placed into the molds in what civil engineers call ‘lifts’, or many individual layers each compacted to remove air pockets. This is a pretty important step. We work about 1′ of snow at a time, and carefully fill the edges of the crate, and use a tamper across the entire surface. Student volunteers are very helpful at this stage-that’s Grace (I never got her last name), she’s the organizer of the competition this year, working with Brian Paquette from our landscape department. And yes, that’s me behind the camera, not avoiding work, I took the next turn.

We fill the boxes to the top, wait for them to set up for a little bit, then take the ratchet straps off and move the contraption to the next location. This year we made 5 snow cubes, as only 5 teams entered. Then, later during winter carnival, the students have at it. We supply shovels, ice scrapers, and other implements of mass destruction.

Here’s one of the teams. Like I said, it was warm that day. This team wouldn’t tell me what they were making at the time. I had no idea the competition was so cut-throat. I came back briefly to campus over the weekend to photograph the finished sculptures, and, like most years, was impressed by the creativity. I never seemed to have progressed past snowman, or feeling expansive occasionally, snow fort.

This was what the team above made, couch and tv set. I’m hoping the antenna for the tv came from the ground, not a live tree.

One of my kids liked the ice cream cone best. It was about 10 degrees outside when taking this picture, so maybe this inspiration came from the middle 50’s of the previous day.

I liked the idea of the mini-Mead Chapel right below the larger version.

We don’t know what this is. Cobra head? Squirrel tail? Modern snow?

This was the winner, both by Grace the judge, and by my kids (not that they had any say in the matter.) Wine and cheese, obviously. Pretty cool.

The Vermont Flower Show

Much like the Shameless Commerce division of Car Talk, I’m veering slightly from the ‘educational institution’ blog to plug one of the finest things you should be doing this winter, which is attending the Vermont Flower Show at the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds in Essex Junction, on March 4-6.

It’s been my pleasure to help set up this show for many, many years (10, 15?) I was the central display designer twice-a herculean task that was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I look at set up for the show much like baseball players going to spring training, the smell of soil and green plants, the movement of mulch fork and shovel getting your muscles in shape for the upcoming year.

I’ll tell you what goes into the display, but you won’t believe me. More than 150 yards of mulch ( a yard of mulch fits in the back of a small pickup truck), an entire commercial greenhouse of forced bulbs, hundreds of perennials, and trees and shrubs forced for blooms as well. Yes, entire trees. We’re a little crazy, admittably. And that’s just the plant material. Read about more of the design for more of the scoop, including a sketch of the design.

What makes the construction of the flower show all the more remarkable, though, is the hardest to explain. At most flower shows, individual landscapers and garden centers construct their own booths, miniature landscapes amongst a green mall for a week or weekend. In Vermont, though, the green industry is a little smaller, and not many firms have the resources to pull off a booth of forced plant material. So, many years ago, the Vermont Nursery and Landscape Association teamed up to hold a flower show, then at the Sheraton, where everybody got together and built one central display, for the betterment of the industry on the whole. Competitors the rest of the year, everybody teams up and shares tasks, and creates a spring world inside on a snowy weekend.

There are many other things to do at the show as well, not just walking through the central display. The admission price alone is a steal for all the talks and hands-on seminars that are possible to attend, and kids have their own room to ‘craft’ in as well. There are even cooking demostrations, along with vendors selling gardening merchandise, and plants. I dare you to walk out of there without some forced flowers in your hand.