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

Glaciers and Treasures of the Snow

Glaciers and Treasures of the Snow
Glacier National Park

In Job 38:22, God refers to “the treasures of the snow” and “the treasures of ice.” In Job’s day, that may not have made a lot of sense. Even today, most people are not aware of the role glaciers play in our lives.

We are living in what scientists call an interglacial period when changes in Earth’s orbit have caused glaciers to melt. This interglacial period has been going on for some 12,000 years and is unrelated to any human-induced climate change. When scientists find evidence of forests, other life-forms, and human remains under the ocean’s surface, we can be sure that the sea level has been very different in the past.

Water molecules are designed in a way that allows glaciers to exist. A glacier is not a block of ice. When water is frozen and put under pressure, it behaves like a fluid. When I was teaching physics, we had a demonstration in which we froze a metal container of water and then used a piston to put it under pressure. The metal container had holes, and the ice would shoot out through the holes in a cylindrical form, just as any liquid or gas would do. Snow falls on the ground in a cold place and piles up, putting pressure on the snow on the bottom. The pressure changes the snow, and it begins to flow like toothpaste. Those gorgeous blue ice flows, the treasures of the snow, are glaciers.

So why is this a good thing for you and me? First, it locks up water, so it is available year-round. The amount of land area available to humans would drop radically if we lost all the glacial ice on the planet. As the ice melts, it does so gradually. Many areas of the world have water year-round only because slow-melting glaciers supply water in a controlled manner.

Many plants and animals depend on glaciers for their survival. Glacial algae get their water by producing dark pigments, which absorb enough sunlight to melt glacial ice. In that way, plants can grow in places like Greenland. The algae provide food for fish and other marine organisms in northern latitudes. Without the glaciers to supply drinking water for the bottom of the food chain, life couldn’t exist in northern marine environments.

Glaciers are also one of the strongest erosional agents in existence. Because of that, mountainous areas have u-shaped valleys with numerous cirque lakes and moraines. Glaciers have allowed a whole biosphere to exist in those mountainous areas. Human habitation in much of the Rocky Mountains is only possible because of the work of glaciers. Here in Michigan, we see and enjoy a continental glacial area where a vast ice sheet shaped the land and created thousands of lakes.

Job could not comprehend the full meaning of the words God spoke to him. Today, people who live where the glaciers have worked and are working can be thankful for God’s design of the “treasures of the snow.”

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Reference: Discover Magazine December 2020, page 66.

Antarctic Glaciers and Flooding

Antarctic Glaciers and Flooding
Thwaites Glacier

Two of the most massive Antarctic glaciers have broken loose from their land connections and are floating in the ocean. This is a concern because if both glaciers melt, there would be enough water to raise the world’s oceans by ten feet. It is not only another evidence of global warming but also a warning to the world that we must pay attention to the coming rise in sea level.

Understand that when ice is exposed to the air on land, it absorbs a minimum of heat, so melting on a landmass is very slow. In water, however, heat exchange is very rapid. We all know that hypothermia takes place when a human gets into icy water. The melting of ice is much faster once it is in water, and the Thwaites glacier, the larger of the two Antarctic glaciers involved, is one of the fastest-changing glaciers on Earth.

Job 38:22-23 refers to the “treasures of the snow” and says that this frozen water is “reserved against the time of trouble.” In Earth’s design, the snow and ice preserve water and provide a vital heat sink to the whole planet. We see evidence that the oceans have been much higher in Earth’s geological history than they are today. There have also been times when they were much lower. The polar ice caps have been the primary water storage areas. Glaciers are also part of the design of Earth to make it hospitable for Life.

If the sea level rises ten feet, imagine what would happen to the world’s major cities located on the edge of the oceans. Since the mass of these two glaciers is enormous, this is not an immediate threat. ( A recent NASA study says that at the present rate, the melting ice sheets would add 15 inches to the sea level by 2100.) But it is a potential catastrophe we can avoid if we recognize that the possible flooding is a consequence of human actions, not a vindictive act of God. We can avoid what has already begun to happen by taking care of the planet as God instructed us to do.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Reference: A report about Antarctic glaciers in the September 14, 2020, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Importance of Ice in Earth’s Design

Importance of Ice in Earth's Design - Snow on Mountains

In a recent discussion about global warming, a man said to me that we would be better of if we could get rid of all the ice on Earth. I’m sure some of that sentiment came because we were in the midst of an ice storm. We get lots of snow in Michigan, but when the temperature is zero degrees outside, we don’t see freezing rain, just snow. Another member of the discussion pointed out the need for ice so he could do his favorite sport of ice fishing. In truth, the importance of ice is more than just ice-fishing or winter sports.

The design of the water molecule allows us to have ice, and without it, planet Earth would be in serious trouble. The water molecule is polar, meaning that it has a positive end and a negative end. When water freezes, the positive end of one molecule attaches to the negative end of another molecule. If the temperature is low enough, we have a rigid form of water we call ice.

Many people don’t realize the importance of ice. It is a major design feature of Earth and its ecosystems. Ice has a lower density than liquid water, which allows lakes to freeze from the top. That provides winter protection for all the life that lives in water environments. Marine and freshwater life-forms of both animals and plants could not exist if it were not for the design of the water molecule and the formation of ice.

Ice is also a significant controller of the water cycle on Earth. Job 37:6 indicates that snow is a conscious creation of God. Job 38:22 speaks of the “treasures of the snow” which God says He has “reserved against a time of trouble.” People living in the western United States can tell you of the importance of snow and ice, which locks up water in the winter so that it is available during the heat of the summer. If all the ice on planet Earth melted, what would happen to the sea level? There are debates about how much the oceans would rise, but there is no question but that the state of Florida would be submerged.

Ice in the form of snow cleans our air. It provides insulation in very cold places allowing mammals to survive underground during the winter months. We should not underestimate the importance of ice because it is truly a treasure in whatever form it comes. We must do what we can to maintain the water cycle and the balance that God built into the design of planet Earth.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Joy of Hard Water

Joy of Hard Water

Our visitor had just arrived in the United States from South America. He had never seen snow before arriving on a day in January. As he looked out into our back yard, he laughed heartily and said, “How happy is your hard water.” I had no idea what he was talking about because I think of hard water as something that leaves mineral deposits that are difficult to remove. I had not connected joy and hard water.

I joined him at the door and saw what he was looking at. The visitor was talking about the solid state of water in the form of snow. Our “hard water” made a snowman, something our visitor could not visualize from his personal experience. Nothing could stop him from joining my daughters to make his own snowman.

Water is, indeed, a remarkable material. The design of its molecular structure allows it to dissolve other substances. This same structure allows water to hold vast amounts of heat. It also allows water to exist as a solid. Liquids like alcohol have a molecular design that does not make them nearly as good as water in these critical ways.

The most important use of water is in living things. Without water, digestion would be impossible. The control of temperature and distribution of nutrients in living things depends on the presence of water. Planet Earth controls and moderates temperatures by its use of water. Even the Earth’s ability to store massive amounts of water in polar and glacial ice depends on water’s molecular design.

My response to our visitor was that our hard water was a joy all right, but that water itself was the real joy. It’s a material designed to serve the needs of all living things and is the basis of life itself.

— John N. Clayton © 2019

Design of Snow Is Awesome

Design of Snow Is Awesome
As I write this, we are sitting here in Michigan after having experienced a record snowfall for one day. As we shovel and snow-blow our driveways and around our mailboxes, we hear a great deal of abusive language from our neighbors. Still, there is a great deal of good in every snowflake because of the design of snow.

It is not just the aesthetic value of snowflakes that makes them good, although that certainly is a wonderful thing to see under a hand lens or microscope. The snow has a variety of other positive attributes designed into its structure.

A snowflake is made of water which is a polar molecule meaning that it has a positive and a negative end. The reason ice forms and water expands as it freezes is that the positive end of one molecule is attracted to the negative end of the next molecule. This structure also allows the snowflake to attract particles in the atmosphere that have a polar makeup. Salt, for example, has a sodium atom which has a plus charge, attracted to chlorine which has a negative charge. A salt molecule in the atmosphere will be attracted to a snowflake. Even molecules such as carbon compounds, which do not generally have a polarity, are attracted to the snowflakes. Snow cleans the air, and many of us enjoy being outside when it is snowing because of the freshness and purity it gives the air.

Snow stores water in places where water shortages are a problem. The western United States gets heavy snow in the mountains in winter. Water has a high heat of fusion. What that means is that it takes extra energy to melt ice–80 calories per gram of ice to be exact. For that reason, snow stays in the solid state for a long time after the temperature has risen above freezing. That allows snow to melt slowly sending a constant supply of water to dry areas at lower elevations.

The design of snow is also friendly to animals, especially small animals. When the snow is finally off the ground here in Michigan, there will be small tunnels visible in the ground where mice, voles, squirrels, and other small animals have built passageways under the snow. The low temperatures of the air in winter are not a problem for these animals because the snow is a good insulator. Predators cannot easily get to the animals because the snow covers them from aerial attacks.

Water is unique in many ways. Its freezing temperature and its boiling temperature are only 100 Celsius degrees apart. That allows water to exist on our planet as a solid, a liquid, and a gas. Each of those states of water allows some form of life to exist.

In Job 38:22 God questions Job, “Have you entered into the treasures of the snow? Or have you seen the treasures of ice which I have reserved against the time of trouble…” The Hebrew word translated “treasure” in this verse is atsar meaning “a thing laid up.” It is doubtful that Job knew anything about the water cycle or how he benefited from snow. But the God who designed snow and its role on Earth to benefit humans and all living things certainly knew all about the design of snow.
–John N. Clayton © 2018
Michigan also has “summer snow”