Snowmelt in nature

Jul 2023

This article explores snowmelt as a transitory and catalytic state that occurs in nature. We describe it here, as it provides us with a powerful metaphor for understanding human systems.

Snowmelt is the phase between crystalised solid and an energised liquid. Snowmelt combines elements of ice and water; occurring when energy, in the form of heat, begins to unlock an asset stored over the cooler months.

It is a period of unlocking the latent, life-giving potential in the soil, river systems, and oceans. When mycelium, microbes, and insects emerge again to energise the landscape, animals return from hibernation, and the ecosystem starts to flourish. It happens slowly, then all at once.

The experience of snowmelt

But as friends in cooler climates remind us, snowmelt is not a state of beauty and adoration. Instead, it conjures the icy mud that often covers sidewalks and roads, making them challenging to cross. Trudging through snowmelt fills boot tread with sticky ice, rocks, and dirt. It is messy. But with patience in this disorder comes the chance of transformation. From covering and suffocating the ground below, ice moves away. New energy starts to move as ecological cycles begin again. Through it, growth blooms.

Snowmelt, too, is a reminder of our changing climate. Continued snow and ice melt spell disaster for our ecosystems. Permafrost and glacial forms that have stood for human existence are shifting states re-entering the ozone and broader systems. Environments are transforming along different trajectories; be drier, wetter, hotter, and more random. Balances are shifting. Interdependent adaptation is essential to creating new normals in these environments. In confronting this directly, we accept the nature of things we need to work with and manage.

Change in nature is constant

We see this in the shift over the light of the day, changes in weather and seasonal transitions; they energise and transform landscapes differently.

In these changes, there are numerous changes taking place simultaneously. They interact with and influence each other. While change is constant, an equilibrium ultimately emerges—a temporary steady-state that lasts only until another force induces the ecosystem to adapt again.

Each change in state presents risk and opportunity to different parts of the ecosystem. Embracing change offers the potential to do more with less—to make an outsized impact with the amplification of other actors and forces responding to change. Nature is not naive to these leverage points, and evolution positions particular flora and fauna to rapidly embrace and flourish in new conditions.


Thanks to Dreu Harrison for reflecting on these topics with us. Cover image from James Cheney.

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