Subnivium Ecosystem Harbors Life

Subnivium Ecosystem Harbors Life

We humans don’t always like the winter snow for its inconvenience and sometimes safety threat. For many animals, the snow-cover makes winter the best time of year. Scientists who study life in this seasonal microenvironment under the snow call it the subnivium ecosystem. It allows many species of plants and animals to exist that could not survive without snow.

The first scientific writings about the subnivium world were circulated by a lepidopterist (a scientist who studies butterflies) named Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov was investigating butterflies whose caterpillars eat plants known as blue lupines. These butterflies lay their eggs on the stems of the lupines a few inches above the ground. When snow covers the area, the eggs are protected from the very low temperatures of the mountains where the butterflies live. Scientists conducted a study of those same butterflies in 2019 when there was a significant decrease in the snow cover. They found a 43% decrease in the number of butterflies produced.

This is just one example of life in the subnivium ecosystem. Ruffed grouse burrow into the snow at night and stay in an igloo-like area that can be 50 degrees warmer than the outside air. In wintertime, a surprising number of animals live in the warmer subnivium ecosystem. Wolverines, martens, voles, mice, shrews, red squirrels, and even bears take advantage of heavy snow cover. The protection of snow allows abundant life at high elevations and in polar areas.

Every part of Earth is home to living things because of the design of the animals and plants and the design of water that gives snow thermodynamic properties. It is easy to overlook the statement God made to Job about “the treasures of the snow” (Job 38:22). The simplicity of those words describes a whole world of life in the subnivium ecosystem and the treasure of water stored on snow-covered mountains. The treasure house of snow speaks of the intelligence built into every corner of creation.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Data from National Wildlife magazine, February-March 2021.

Why Do We Need Mountains?

Why Do We Need Mountains?

A skeptic recently complained that mountains are a mistake. “They block travel, cause avalanches, create deserts, and are just a general nuisance. If God were the creator, He wouldn’t have made these huge obstacles to human well-being.” In response to this skeptic, we consider, “Why do we need mountains?” For one thing, mountains are a very practical solution to one of humanity’s greatest needs–water.

In a basic geography or meteorology class, we learn about orographic uplift and rain shadows. As air comes across a flat area, it picks up moisture. But to make rain, there must be more than just water. Condensation requires a cool enough temperature and nuclei on which the water vapor can condense. Mountains provide both the cooler temperatures and the condensation nuclei.

As air pushes up the side of a mountain, it cools, and stirred-up dust provides condensation nuclei. For that reason, it is frequently very rainy on the windward side of the mountain. On the other side, the air is dry because all of the moisture has been removed.

Mountains can also capture and store water as ice and snow. Scientific American (January 2021) published an article with data on how many people get their water from the mountains. There are 78 regional mountain chains or “water towers” that deliver water to almost two billion people and surrounding ecosystems. Without mountains, the amount of land that would be hospitable to humans would be much more limited.

In addition to mountains capturing and storing water, they have also created underground aquifers. Glaciers generated in mountain areas have carved out huge valleys, depositing sand and gravel in permeable layers that allow massive amounts of water to seep into the ground. Here in southern Michigan, continental glaciers produced aquifers that supply us with water. In a large area of the Midwest United States, an underground aquifer called the Teays River has supplied adequate water for agriculture.

God has provided a massive and effective water system for nearly all continents, primarily because of mountains. Why do we need mountains? We need them for the water that allows irrigation as well as drinking and other uses. Mountains are beautiful, they provide recreational activities for humans, and they literally water the world for human survival.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

The Mountains and the Sand

One of the interesting studies available to students of geology is the way in which various structures on the surface of the Earth are formed. Where does sand come from and what message does it carry for us? Where we live in the Great Lakes area, there are massive amounts of sand. Areas to the south of us have lots of rocks, but relatively small amounts of sand compared to our area. This has not always been true, however, because deep underground in that area there are massive amounts of sandstone–the same sand we have around the Great Lakes but cemented together into rock.

Sand can be produced by the smashing of rocks. In places like Hawaii, there are beaches made up of black lava pounded into sand by the waves. There are even green and pink sand beaches made from rocks that contain colored minerals like olivine. Most sand, however, is made of quartz and is the by-product of the breakdown of volcanic rocks. Granite is made up of three basic minerals: orthoclase, hornblende, and quartz. There can be smaller amounts of other materials, but these are the dominant ones. These minerals have different hardness levels and are eroded at different rates. Orthoclase is quite easy to erode and has a pinkish color to it. This material erodes to become clay. The dark colored hornblende is also fairly easy to weather and erode. Quartz is extremely hard and durable. The result is that when weather and physical processes work on granite, the orthoclase and hornblende are carried away and what is left is quartz sand.

The massive amount of sand seen around the Great Lakes has come mainly from the granite that makes up the Canadian shield–the bedrock underlying much of North America. Any mountainous area will ultimately be reduced to nothing more than sand. One lesson that comes from mountains and sand is that nothing in this physical world is permanent. Jesus stated this eloquently when He said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break through and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19, 20).

When I studied geology at Notre Dame University, we had a professor who would take us on a field trip to the cemetery. Headstones erected in the early 1800s already had disintegrated into piles of sand. One has to be reminded of James 4: 14, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

Through all of this, however, there is the message of purpose and design by God. The mixture of sand, hornblende, and clay lead to soil. Life could not exist on a planet made of rock that could not be eroded. The waters that erode the granite sustain life, and the erosion process produces the topsoil that feeds us. The change of mountains into sand makes Earth a vibrant, living thing of beauty. So too, our lives can be beautiful if we allow God to mold and shape us. That is one of the key messages of 1 Corinthians 15:51-55. As the writer tells us about the most beautiful change of all:

“Listen, I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will all be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must be clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
–John N. Clayton © 2017