Snow Day
  • Dec 31, 2015 8:00 am
  • 1:39:35 mins

This special "Snow Day" episode uses segments which originally aired on "The Morning Show with Marcus Smith" on December 26, 2014. The Romance of Snow in America Snow is the essence of paradox, says Bernard Mergen, professor emeritus of American Studies at George Washington University and author of “Snow in America.”  “Snow falls as soft, individual crystals, but when it hits the ground it becomes heavy and watery – that contrast catches people from the beginning,” says Mergen, of snow’s power. “Snow comes in a season of darkness, but it’s white and reflects the light of sun and moon – so it’s those kinds of paradoxes that draw people to snow.”  Years ago, when Mergen set out to right “Snow in America” he sent out a request in the New York Times for people to share their first experiences with snow. The results surprised him.  “Having grown up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, I never thought about people who hadn’t experienced snow in childhood.” The responses flooded in from people who had their first snow encounter as older children or adults. “The most important thing I learned about snow was that throughout the world it is equated first with Northern Europe, then with the United States. People responded that they thought about “going to America to see snow. That an American Christmas is a White Christmas.”  Mergen traced that connection back to the British Colonists in the 17th Century who encountered in New England, more severe snow conditions than they’d known in England. “As good religious people they saw it as a test. If they were going to create a utopia in America, they would have to work harder than other people.”  New England authors including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne created a literature of snow storms they felt were exceptional to New England.  “Exceptionalism isn’t just national, it can be regional, too,” says Mergen.  As North/South rivalries and dissension grew stronger in 19th century, “snow was used more and more as a symbol of New England goodness and hard work and preparation for winter made them better people than Southerners who were lazy and had slaves to work because they weren’t up to the task themselves.”  Mergen says when Scandinavians came to Midwest, they brought stronger images of living in heavy snow – they brought the pleasure of snow, recreating in snow, using snow as a means of communication because a sled could go faster than a wagon. “Winter was a time of play and leisure and good times.” Mergen adds that it’s no accident the first winter carnival in the United States was in St. Paul, MN.  Romantic “snowscape”paintings became popular in the 1840s and 50s when lithography came into being, says Mergen. An artist named George Drury led out with paintings copied by Currier and Ives, which “invariably showed a farm house in the snow – snow on the roof, smoke coming from chimney, animals and children playing, a sleigh driving by. Drury’s paintings engaged in multiple symbolism of winter harmony.”  Emerson’s use of the snowstorm as a metaphor is Mergen’s primary candidate for how snow was perceived in the 19th Century.  “It is a philosophical meditation on order and disorder. A snowstorm that comes in and disrupts life and isolates the farmer in his home is really about order and disorder. It’s disorder as it blows in and swirls and piles up and then order emerges at the end when you go out and look at the new snowscape for first time and see things you’ve never seen before. Snow is a great encourager or imagination. One of the paradoxes of snow is that it traps the farmer at home, but encourages him and his wife and children to see things in a new way. You find a lot of that in 19th Century romantic literature and art.”  In the 20th Century, Mergen says snow takes on modernist meaning. “Man, having lost much of his faith in the divine, is looking at an empty expanse that is, in some ways, frightening.”  Falling snow is also a symbol of beginnings, while fallen snow evokes endings – or “the beginning of the end.” That ties into the cyclical nature of snow as a process, says Mergen. “Snow is water that evaporates, goes into the atmosphere, freezes, falls and rests until it melts and evaporates again.”  Snow Survival Snow is romantic and cozy if you’re inside, but if you’re stuck on the side of the road in a blizzard or our in the woods when a storm hits, snow can turn dangerous, very quickly. The key to surviving in a storm is “not to lose your cool,” says Tom Kostigen, founder of The Climate Survivalist and author of National Geographic’s “The Extreme Weather Survival Guide: Understand, Prepare, Survive, Recover.”  If you’re stuck in your car in a storm, stay in it, says Kostigen. “Then at least you know you have shelter. Make sure your tailpipe is clean. Run the engine every ten minutes to keep you warm. Crack the windows so you don’t get carbon monoxide poisoning. Put a colored flag on your antenna.  It’s up to you to have the tools – sand, salt, shovels, emergency supplies in your car so you can prepare for those emergencies.”  “We plan ahead for Christmas, for vacations, for holidays - but we don’t like to plan ahead for negative things, we don’t like to think about emergencies,” says Kostigen. Make sure your car is tuned-up when you travel, that your tank is full.  If you get stuck outside in a snow storm, Kostigen says look for some sort of shelter to block out rain, snow and wind. Staying put is very important, because things look closer in the snow.  If you have to move, toss something dark like a rock or piece of clothing in front of you so you know if it’s safe to step forward. You may have to move in order to find a safer place to hunker down.  Sweating is a big issue, too, says Kostigen. “That’s another reason it’s important to stay put. Perspiration will really drop your temperature quickly – just a four degree drop in your body temperature and you’re in a hypothermic state when your body starts to shut down.”  Find something that’s darker than the snow  How Hollywood Gets Snow Wrong “Snow, snow! I want to wash my hands, my face and hair with snow,” sings one of the characters in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.   “I hear that Snow song and I think, this is clearly a song written by somewhere in Southern California who’s never had his face washed in snow,” says Kerry Bennett of Parent Previews. She reviews movies with Rod Gustafson and both live in Canada, which makes them experts on snow.  They say Hollywood gets it wrong, generally. “I think they use it a lot because it looks pretty for the cameras,” says Gustafson.  Two of their favorite snow-themed movies are “Cool Runnings” about the Jamaican bobsled team competing in the Calgary Winter Olympics and “Groundhog Day,” where snow takes on various identities and ultimately the star makes peace with it.  Snow's Economic Effects The duality of snow really comes out in a snow storm hits a city. Kids are elated when school is cancelled. You can’t get into work, so you can spend the unexpected day off holed up with a book or watching an entire season of your favorite TV show on Netflix.  But your boss probably isn’t so thrilled. A major storm can mean slow sales, cancelled flights, power outages.  When storm shuts down a city, “money is not moving and that economic impact ripples right across the nation,” says Scott Bernhardt, President of Planalytics which studies the impact of weather on businesses and economies.  Some of that money comes back, says Bernhardt. Any major purchase you delay because of snow, you’ll probably still buy later. “But a lot of activity fails to come back. If you don’t go to a restaurant on that Friday night, you don’t go twice on Saturday night. That trip on Friday night you skipped because of a storm is completely lost.”  If the storm comes during a major business or shopping season – like Black Friday – the loss will be even bigger, adds Bernhardt.  Cities spend big money to deal with snow, too. Planalytics estimates New York City, has to spend one million dollars an inch for basic snow removal on the city street.  Both cities and businesses “have to do their homework and do the math,” says Bernhardt. The best way to do that is to look at historic weather and economic data to see if staying open or buying extra plows has made good financial sense in the past.  If you’re forecast for the stomr of the century, or storm of the decade, it’s a pretty easy decision – shut the business down. But if you’re looking at a 1-3 inch snowstorm, that’s a more common decision businesses are faced with.  When businesses lose in a snowstorm, so do governments, which rely on sales taxes. Cold weather pushes up the cost of heating government buildings, too.  Energy companies, on the other hand, get a nice financial boost when cold weather hits.  “you talk about the negative effect of snow, but it’s not negative if you’re selling snow shovels. People that make boots talk about that first snow as ‘white gold.’”  Even with the money being made during a snow storm, Bernhardt says big storms are a “net negative” on local economies: more money is lost than is gained.  The Business of Snow Snow is money to the ski industry and quality matters, says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association.  “We’ve learned to hedge,” adds Berry. “We’ve learned to make snow and create a quality experience, but to be honest, a great snow makes a great business year.”  Snow making is almost ubiquitous in the United States now - “it’s the cost of doing business – if you don’t have snow, you’re not in business,” says Berry. “Some years it gets the season going early. Some years we use it to open lower elevations or build a base for new snow.”  Berry notes that ski resorts today are less-dependent on actually skiing, while food, lodging, retail and rental are increasingly important to overall revenue.  Most operations at a ski resort are owned by a single operating company (hotel, restaurant, ski school, rental shop, etc.)  Skiers are loyal to the sport and to their “home ski area,” says Berry. “They’re always comparing their home ski area to other places they ski.”  As the climate changes, Berry says “Snow making is more important than ever, to us and we’ve become very good at it. If you’re nostalgic for the good old days, I would argue you weren’t there, because the product really has never been better than it is today.”  “We don’t have our head in a snow bank when it comes to climate change,” continues Berry. “We’re very concerned about the possibility of warming. But in the immediate term, we’re pretty good at serving up a product that meets people’s expectations and that’s a result of our increasingly sophisticated snow-making systems.”  He says ski resorts are taking an active role in reducing their own CO2 emissions and encouraging their customers to do likewise.  The Economy of Skiing Does Utah really have “The Greatest Snow on Earth?”  “It’s scientific fact,” says Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah, which popularized the slogan. He says the slogan was coined by a newspaper writer decades ago and just caught on. “If it’s on the license plate, it must be true.”  But now, says Rafferty, there’s science to suggest that Utah’s snow really is special. “Without getting too technical, it has to do with how storms come here in a way they call ‘right side up’ where storms start off warmer and get colder as storms move through, which makes denser snow on the bottom, lighter snow on the top, which makes for really great conditions.”  Snow making is fine for a base, but you need Mother Nature’s snow for the perfect conditions. “That’s part of the allure in skiing,” adds Rafferty. “When it’s on, it’s on and you gotta get to the slopes.”  Sometimes, living up to the slogan is tough. “In Utah, we have a whole state full of snow snobs,” says Rafferty. “That usually works for us, but in a bad snow year, it hurts us.”  Good marketing can make up for less-than-optimal snow on some level. “I’ve had really, really fun ski experiences in a lot of locations around the country and it doesn’t just have to be perfect powder. Just being outside with your family in nature is pretty magical.”