Snowy Owl Irruption!

Posted on January 21, 2022

Your chances of spotting a snowy owl—those striking winter visitors from the Canadian Arctic with the  bright white plumage and golden eyes—are better than average this year. Why? Because, while there are always a handful of snowy owls that venture down into this neck of the woods in the winter, every four or five years, we’ll see quite a few more than normal- what’s called an “irruption.” This means that there are a lot more snowy owls migrating a lot further south than usual, for reasons that aren’t fully understood.  What we do know is that irruptions are typically driven by a summer breeding season in which their prey of lemmings, voles, and other small mammals is very plentiful on the tundra up north. Abundant food equals larger clutches of snowy owl eggs, which means there will be a lot more young owls migrating south the following winter. 

Unlike most owls, they are not nocturnal, preferring to hunt during the day. This makes sense if you think about it... they spend their summers in a place where there is continuous daylight for a period of time. This also increases you chance of actually seeing one! Look along the shoreline, on beaches, or in large open areas, like agricultural or airport fields. Think places that look like the Arctic.

Other fun facts:

  • Snowy owls are the largest North American owl species by weight, due to the abundance of thick feathers they need for insulation. An adult typically weighs about 4 lbs.
  • Male snowy owls are almost totally white, while females are white with dark bars in their plumage.
  • Lemmings make up the majority of a snowy owl's diet on the tundra. They can eat up to 5 lemmings per day, or 1,600 per year. They typically swallow their prey whole.

Zoom into this map to see where snowy owls have been spotted nearby! Have you seen one? Post a photo on social media and tag us: @ChikamingOpenLands.

There are dendrites accumulating outside!

Posted on January 7, 2022

By which we mean, "it's snowing."

Do you ever wonder why some snow is big, fluffy, and piles up quickly, like today, and some is smaller and just blows around without accumulating much, like Wednesday? Is it true that no two snowflakes are alike? Let's discuss snowflakes.

Snowflakes are formed from water vapor that condenses directly into ice inside of clouds. A drop of water vapor freezes onto a dust particle in the upper atmosphere, forming a "seed crystal." More water vapor droplets then condense and freeze on the surface of the seed crystal, forming patterns as the crystal grows. Water molecules tend to adhere to each other in a hexagonal lattice, which accounts for a snowflake's familiar six-sided shape. 

 As illustrated in the image above, there are four main kinds of snowflakes: needles, dendrites, plates and columns. A snowflake's shape is determined by the temperature, and to a lesser extent the humidity, in the upper atmosphere where it is formed. At temperatures near freezing, we get little needles that don't accumulate much on the ground. At -10 degrees C to -18 degrees C, dendrites form, which are the classic six-armed crystals that we associate with snowflakes. These are bigger, and will accumulate faster. As it gets colder, very thin plates form, which take much longer to accumulate. Finally, at very cold temperatures below -30 degrees C, we get columns, which accumulate even slower. Wednesday, we had plates. Today, dendrites!
So are any two snowflakes exactly the same? Probably not. Since each snowflake travels slightly different paths from the clouds to the ground, they encounter slightly different atmospheric conditions along the way. As a snow crystal falls, it might be forming its intricate "arms" in one pattern, and then seconds later experience a change in temperature or humidity that causes it to switch up and form in a new way. So, it's pretty safe to say that every snowflake really does have its own special shape and pattern.

So why not get outside and get a close-up look? Tag us (#ChikamingOpenLands) in your pics of the accumulating dendrites on social media.

Winter is coming...

Posted on November 19, 2021

(Satellite photo courtesy of NOAA)

In general, we tend to take long term predictions of what the winter will be like with a grain of salt. Will it be a mild winter, cold winter, snowy winter, dry winter, long winter, short winter? It just seems like those long-term forecasts are too difficult to predict... often considerably off-target, sometimes contradicting each other. But sometimes the science can tell us when we are optimally set up for a specific kind of weather, and our favorite MLive meteorologist, Mark Torregrossa, lays out a pretty good case that conditions are ripe for a good old-fashioned lake effect snow dump or two in western Michigan early this winter. 

To get that lake effect snow, we need two conditions: really cold air at 5,000-10,000 feet up in the atmosphere blowing over warmer Lake Michigan water on the surface. When the temperature difference between the surface and the air is 36 degrees F or more, we get that lake effect stuff. There are other, more complicated factors at play too, which Torregrossa outlines here, if you want to learn more about it. But this temperature differential is essential.

So, what's going on now that makes him think we're in for late November/early December lake effect snow? Well for one thing,  Lake Michigan has record warm water temperatures right now... in the mid 50s earlier this week. At those water temps, the air temperature at 5,000 feet doesn't have to drop too much to get to that 36 degree difference. Now, if you've been outside lately (well, except for Wednesday), you know it's already getting chilly. And there's a large area of cold air sitting over most of Canada, that's predicted to dip down into the upper Midwest. In fact, the forecast for Monday shows air temp at 5,000 feet here in Southwest Michigan to be about 4 degrees F. Torregrossa makes an assumption that with the colder weather, lake temps at the surface might be more like 48 degrees by Monday. So. if you do that math, you get a temperature difference of 44 degrees F-- more than enough to set us up for early snow!

Blood Moon Eclipse!

Posted on November 11, 2021

If you're like us, you love a good full moon. Well, November's "Beaver Moon" is especially fun, because there will also be a lunar eclipse--or "blood moon"-- and if THAT's not enough, it will be an especially long-lasting eclipse, clocking in at 3 hours, 28 minutes. 

In the wee hours of Friday, November 19, the full moon will pass through the Earth's shadow, making the moon appear red-- hence the "blood moon" moniker. It's not going to be a total lunar eclipse, but it will come pretty close, with 97% of the moon falling into the Earth's shadow.

Why does the moon look red during an eclipse? When the moon travels through the Earth's shadow, the only light that hits the lunar surface has been filtered through the Earth's atmosphere. Blue light is a shorter wavelength, so it hits the Earth's atmosphere and scatters. But longer wavelength red and orange light travels straight through, hitting far fewer molecules in our atmosphere, so that's the dominant color we see.

Why will the eclipse last so long? Because the Beaver Moon will be the smallest full moon of the year... in other words, the moon is about as far away from us as it gets right now. The moon's orbit around the earth is eliptical, so each month it reaches a closer point (perigee) and a far point (apogee) in relation to the earth. This month, the full moon happens to be the farthest apogee moon (a full moon in perigee is more familiarly called a "supermoon"). Because it's so far away, the Earth's shadow on it will be larger, so it will take the moon longer to travel through it. In fact, this will be the longest lunar eclipse this century!

If you want to see it you'll need to set your alarm... it will begin at 2:18 a.m., and reach maximum eclipse at 4:02 a.m. Plug in your zip code here to see exactly when and where to look in your specific location. 

Hello Darkness, my old friend...

Posted on November 5, 2021

It's time to set the clocks back this weekend. We don't love the end of daylight saving time, which officially happens this Sunday at 2:00 a.m. Enter the long, dark nights of winter, where you feel like you should be in bed by 7:00.

Is the time change really necessary? Why do we do this twice a year?

Well, the answer seems to be energy conservation. The Department of Transportation, which is in charge of daylight saving time, says it saves energy, reduces traffic accidents, and curbs crime. But other studies point out that increased use of air conditioning in the summer, plus the health impact of lost sleep negates these benefits. 

Daylight saving was originally adopted in Europe in 1916 during World War I, as a way to conserve coal. The U.S. hopped onto the daylight saving time train two years later. It was unpopular, and so it was abolished in 1918. Then during World War II, FDR implemented year-round daylight saving time (which he called "war time"), again, to conserve energy. This time, it lasted about 3 1/2 years.

Daylight saving time didn't become a permanent standard in the U.S. until 1966 with the passage of the Uniform Time Act, which set in place the system we know today, with clocks going forward an hour at 2 a.m. the last Sunday in April, and setting back at 2 a.m. the last Sunday in October. The time changes have since evolved to happening the second Sunday in March and the first Sunday in November-- this new iteration was not to save energy, but in part to give trick-or-treaters an extra hour of daylight to make their rounds.

Lots of states advocate for year-round daylight saving time. But under federal law, states must get Congressional approval to do so (if a state wants to scrap daylight saving, in other words, stay on standard time year-round, it doesn't need approval as long as the entire state goes along. Currently, Arizona and Hawaii don't use daylight saving time). Just in the last four years, 19 states have introduced legislationor passed resolutions to adopt year-round daylight saving time. But again, that would require a change to federal law, which is no small hurdle.

And we would be remiss if we didn't point out that during the energy crisis in the 1970's, the federal government DID enact permanent daylight saving time. It lasted 16 months-- people HATED it. It was the dark mornings that did it in. I think we here in western Michigan, about as far west in our time zone as we can get, can relate. Imagine sunrise at 9:00 a.m. in December. No thanks.

So, on Sunday evening when you're staring into the dark void and feeling sad, just remember that it might be a little easier to get up on Monday morning!