Nathan Erwin manages the Otto Orkin Insect Zoo at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. An article in the March 4 Style section misidentified the museum. (Published 3/5/03)
Finally. Amid the SUV-swallowing potholes, flood-stained basements and damnable ice dams, some upbeat news: A mother lode of snow is mostly good for nature.
What the snow didn't crush, it made stronger. In the aftermath, plants will prevail, fauna will flourish.
Kevin Conrad, for one. A horticulturalist at the National Arboretum, Conrad says that local trees "have been through a difficult couple of years. Having this amount of moisture -- especially snow, because the melt is slower and the water penetration is deeper -- is wonderful for the trees."
Bill Line, a spokesman for the National Park Service, says that the heavy snows are beneficial to the flora of the Washington area. "Snow cover is actually a good thing," Line says. "Eventually this will melt . . . and help reduce whatever sort of drought situation there is."
The water table is rising again.
Spring growth will start again soon, if it hasn't already. "Plants, trees, grass -- all are well adapted to deal with snow and snow cover," Line says. This winter's epic snowfall "simply may delay the process. Eventually the daffodils will come up. The crocuses will come up. Things will bloom. The grass will grow."
Lilacs will be bred from the dead land; dull roots will be stirred by spring rains, as T.S. Eliot says. The skunk cabbage, often the first leafy harbinger of spring, will push its way through the crusty snow and stink to high heaven.
When there is no snow and temperatures drop really low, daffodils die and crocuses croak. Snows protect. "Snow serves as a blanket, as an insulator" for plants and roots, Line says. "It keeps the temperature at ground level right at 28 to 30 degrees."
Great honking snows are easier on trees than ice storms. "Snow tends to be lighter and fluffier, much less weight on a tree," Line says.
And what will become of that grand smear of daffodils down by the P Street Bridge over Rock Creek Parkway? "Of course those will bloom," Line says.
Same goes for the city's cherished cherry trees.
"Full-size trees will not be affected," he says. "They will be the beneficiaries of that water."
But shallow-rooted bushes may not fare as well. Boxwoods, for example. "We're going to see damage because they don't deal with the heavy snow," says Chuck Schuster of the Maryland Cooperative Extension in Montgomery County.
Ay, there's the shrub.
Ice-melting salt -- contaminating the snow melt -- will kill trees, too, Schuster says.
Some unprotected potted plants might have succumbed to the low temperatures. "We haven't had this extreme cold in the past five years," Schuster says. "We've had mild winters. This year we've gotten hit hard."
He asks a cosmic question: "When was the last time we really saw the ground?" Because of mega-snows, some plants are in danger of becoming wild critter food. Schuster warns of "increased deer browsing." The snow forces animals to seek out new sources of food. This winter, he says, deer are dining more on ornamental shrubs that are exposed.
Schuster also warns of "increased vole damage." The little rodents, tunneling through the deep snow, may have been brunching on bark and cambium -- the second layer -- of trees and shrubs beneath the snowpack.
For the birds, ice and snow can be harsh. "The birds that we have around here now evolved with this kind of winter," says David Farner, a staff member at the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase. "They eat the food that's available -- poison ivy berries and American holly berries. Plants that grow pretty tall."
For protection, some birds might behave a little oddly. Titmice, for instance, sometimes huddle together in a nest box meant for bluebirds. But, Farner adds, "birds can freeze in cold, cold weather."
At the zoo, the large creatures adapt as well. "Some animals, like the giant pandas, seem to like to romp in the snow," says Robert Hoage of the National Zoo, "while the Bactrian camels and seals and sea lions, with their fat layers, don't seem to even notice it."
Animals that love warm weather, he says, "stay indoors or in dens or nest boxes with heat lamps." Some require extra hay to bed down in and more food to help stave off winter's chill.
Harley Spier, fisheries biologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, says that unless the Potomac River is frozen solid to the bottom the fish will survive. "They will not be feeding as much. They are coldblooded, so they will seek areas where there's less current. They will expend less energy."
Small creatures also make do. "There are two major approaches to dealing with winter in the insect world," says Nathan Erwin, manager of the Otto Orkin Insect Zoo at the American Museum of Natural History. "Stay here and tough it out. Or migrate. One well-known example of the migration are the monarch butterflies. They can not overwinter, so they fly south to the mountains north of Mexico City."
However, he says, "most insects stay."
Certain mosquitoes will overwinter as adults in tree hollows and sheltered places, Erwin says. "Ladybird beetles, or ladybugs, hibernate in protected places."
Most insects are dormant during a severe winter, and, therefore, unaffected by unplowed streets, burst pipes and crazed commutes.
One bit of natural wonder to watch for, Erwin says, is the mourning cloak, that hauntingly beautiful butterfly -- usually dark-winged with periwinkle spots and a yellow band along the wing ends.
The mourning cloak overwinters here as an adult. It usually emerges from its chrysalis in late summer or early fall. But on a warm, sun-painted midwinter's day, when the temperature spikes up, Erwin says, you just might get a lucky glimpse.
Though insects can be frozen by drastic cold, most spend the winter impervious to day-to-day changes in temperature. They are more affected, Erwin says, by day length.
Heading into winter, days get shorter. After the winter solstice, days again grow longer and there is more light in the world. "Insects can process these cues," Erwin says. "When day length gets to a certain point, insects are triggered to go into diapause -- or hibernation -- or they are triggered to come out of it."
Those that lie dormant throughout the snowy days, Erwin says, "will commence development that was ceased in the fall."
Praying mantises are in egg cases sitting on branches, he says, waiting for the day to get long enough to emerge. Many beetle species overwinter as adults. "Fireflies are usually in the larval stage," Erwin says. "In ditches and moist areas in woods, you'll see the larvae at night . . . glowing. We call them glow worms."
To cope with the excruciating cold, Erwin says, many insects produce a natural antifreeze. They reduce the amount of water in their systems and replace it with a glycerin solution that will not freeze during wintertime.
Like humans and other living things, insects carry on despite the cold. "They're all here," Erwin says. "They're just in a life stage we're not familiar with."
Now you know. What appear to be damaging, debilitating snows can be helpful. As the drifts recede and the snowmen melt and life around us returns to normal, we will see evidence of nature's resilience.
We shouldn't really be surprised to see the crocuses rise and the robins return. After all, the landscape and wildlife as we know it were born of an ice age. And so the icy drama is played out in miniature year after year.