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Treebeard's Stumper Answer
26 March 1999

We had an unusual snow storm on March 15. We usually get some snow in the mountains behind Santa Barbara, but this storm dumped as much as 10 inches and completely covered the upper Santa Ynez Valley. There was even snow at Dunn Middle School in Los Olivos. I got to take my first ever snow day from work, but Ry and I spent most of it chain sawing a path through the broken trees along our road. What a mess. I made an album of snow pictures.

Storm Damage

Snow at the Middle School was a fun surprise last week! It wasn't so much fun at my home on San Marcos Pass. We had seven inches of heavy snow on the ground by noon. Then the oak trees started to break under the weight. It sounded like artillery! Our house survived, but the woods are a mess. As the snow melted, I noticed California poppies near school and yellow buttercups in the mountains that went through the storm without damage. How can the snow snap the oak trees, yet leave these delicate wildflowers unharmed?

Storm damage photo
Storm damage in front of our house.
Note the widow-makers hanging from the tree.


Snow falls flake by flake, so it builds up around wildflowers and actually protects them. They don't have large surfaces, and their delicate stems bend easily to shake off any snow that accumulates. Trees are different. The oaks have rigid horizontal branches that collect large amounts of heavy snow. Try holding a weight out at arm's length for a full minute to appreciate the effect! Pines are more protected by their shape and didn't suffer as much damage. The forest will recover, but it will be different. I think of this as evolution in action.

Notes:

The storm brought widow-makers for us, but it was a windfall for the tree trimmers. Our road is now cleared (at great expense), but the woods are still a tangle of fallen branches. The view from our house is changed. I'm worried about summer fires with all the ladder fuel on the ground that can carry fire up into the trees. I feel vulnerable and exposed. Check out my snow pictures to see why.

I filled a kitchen measuring cup with snow from our porch and let it melt: 500 ml of snow made about 100 ml of water. I have nothing to compare this to. We had big fluffy snowflakes, but they were not classic hexagons. Later in the day (after the trees broke), it turned to corn snow. There was no wind during our storm, which increased the damage since wind would help shake the snow from the trees.

I noticed that different kinds of trees respond to the snow event in different ways. These are first impressions. My trail into the woods needs a lot of work before I can do more research! The links are to my flora which is under construction and may not work yet. Visit CalFlora for more species info.

It's not surprising that pines and large-leafed deciduous trees with a pyramidal shape are dominant in the high mountains and further north. Regular snow storms could change the makeup of our forest surprisingly fast since the replacement trees are already here. This must be a reminder of past climates.

We had a similar snow storm on San Marcos Pass about 20 years ago in 1981 (also late spring? also La Niña?) that did comparable damage. Our recent storm would have been more damaging to our trees without this previous storm. Old timers remember another heavy snow storm about 25 years before that. The oak woodland is still here, so maybe this is a natural pruning cycle. I hope it's not also part of a natural fire cycle.

I did an Alta Vista search on <"snow damage" and tree> and got some hits, but nothing definitive.

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Copyright © 1999 by Marc Kummel / mkummel@rain.org