Monday, January 18, 2016

By any other name

While heavy snow and persistent cold are not unusual in this part of the world in December, we only see them in aggregate about one-fifth of the time. They don’t come every five years, either, but seem to cluster in multi-year segments every one to three decades or so.

Although we had nearly as much snow last December at Kimball (14 inches), air temperatures averaged 28 degrees for the month, and the snow had a different character and behaved differently. It was a wetter snow to begin with in 2014, and abundant sunshine caused some melting and crusting of the surface snow. In December, 2015 we had 15.2 inches of very fine, very dry snow and the 26 degree average air temperature seems to have been cold enough to prevent surface melting and crusting.

Therefore, the snow we’ve had thus far this winter has remained fine and powdery, as opposed to last year’s which quickly formed hard-frozen drifts. The two kinds of snow are very different. This year’s snow is prone to blowing and drifting with the tiniest bit of breeze, whereas last year’s snow didn’t blow at all. This year’s snow is easier to get stuck in, while last year the crusted snow was relatively easy to navigate. The difference is rather like the difference between dry sand and wet sand at the beach.

The two kinds of snow are very different, yet they’re both snow.

In the 1880’s Franz Boas, a German-American anthropologist, lived with and studied the Inuit people of the far north of Canada. One of the observations he made was that the Inuit had hundreds of different words for snow.

In later years some scholars declared Boas’ work in this regard to be flawed, calling it sloppy scholarship and exaggeration at best and at worst perhaps even a hoax.

Other scholars maintained that Boas was correct, and that furthermore, most other Arctic peoples have dozens-to-hundreds of words for snow.

The controversy over the number of words for snow isn’t about snow itself, it’s about how you go about defining what a word is.

Many cultures, including the Inuit, use polysynthetic grammar, where a base word is modified by adding one or more suffixes to add descriptive depth. Many other cultures, including our own, modify and describe by adding separate and distinct words in sentence form.

For instance, an Inuit speaker might describe our December, 2014 snow as “matsaaruti.” If he spoke in English he might say “heavy, wet, prone to form ice.” He might call our December, 2015 snow “pukak,” which in English might be rendered “fine, crystalline snow.”

The same polysynthesis holds true when the Inuit talk about ice. Rendered in English, the Inuit “auniq” might become “ice full of holes”; “utuqaq,” could become “old ice that lasts for years”; and “siguliaksraq,” would be “patchy ice forming as the sea begins to freeze.”

We can see, then, that Boas was essentially correct. There are many different types of snow and ice, and the Inuit -- as well as other Northern peoples -- use many different polysynthetic words to describe them, while we use sentences made up of subjects, objects, nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, etc.

If you spend a little bit of time researching this topic you’ll quickly find that the discussion is more about the words than about the physical reality those words describe. It’s easy, and in many ways enjoyable, to follow that rabbit trail. We are social creatures, after all, and we constantly talk about the weather, so the way we talk about and describe weather phenomena is naturally fascinating.

But that trail leads away from the physical reality of ice and snow, and I think it’s important to avoid getting completely sidetracked by linguistic theory and to remember that the subject of the discussion, snow and ice, is real, physical stuff existing in the real, physical world.

As I write this on Monday morning we’re 27 days into winter and 18 days into 2016. We’ve already had more cold, snow and ice than last winter, and more than in any winter of the last decade.

Looking at that paragraph, particularly if you’ve been propagandized by the political climate debate, you might be inclined to believe that something fundamental has happened, that the climate is changing in ways it’s never changed before.

This is where having real records to look at comes in handy. Looking back over the Kimball weather record since 1893, we see that on average we have these kind of cold, snowy winters about 20 percent of the time. They don’t come like clockwork every five years, though. The record shows that they tend to cluster a bit, in roughly 2-5 year groups every 10-30 years or so. Those clusters don’t come like clockwork, though, either. We sometimes see a single cold, snowy winter bookended by years of relatively warm, open winters. We also see the reverse, a single warm winter preceded and followed by years of cold and snow.

Valid records and valid data tell us some very important things about climate. Firstly, they absolutely refute the political theme of man caused climate change. This narrative holds that mankind has been pumping carbon into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution, causing a greenhouse effect which is altering the global climate in potentially disastrous ways. Were this the case, valid records and data would clearly and unequivocally show the change. They do not. Secondly, they also refute the counter-political theme which holds that mankind has no effect on climate. Of course we affect climate. We’re part of nature, and we affect climate in the same fashion that all other parts of nature do. Most importantly, however, an objective appraisal of such data and records reminds us that nature and nature’s climate are vastly complex, and that we do not understand them as well as we would like to believe.

As it turns out, a lot of the debate surrounding climate and “climate change” is very much akin to the debate sparked by Boas and his observation that the Inuit have many words for snow and ice. That debate is seldom about the physical reality about snow and ice, and most often about defining what, exactly, defines the terms word, suffix, sentence, grammar, etc.

Those are interesting arguments, but they rather miss the point. There are obviously many different kinds of snow and ice, and people with different cultures, societies, and languages describe these differences in many different ways. Those differences, however, are minor -- if interesting -- details.

Snow and ice happen in nature's realm. Nature is in charge there. She doesn't care about theories and principal component analysis. She'll snow when she snows, and not when she doesn't. Challenge her and she'll help you kill yourself, work with her and she'll help you thrive.



  1. Has something set up shop in the round bale next to the building, or was it just dropped kind of close to the wall? One of my goals in life is to see a round baler with a kicker. Wouldn't that be something to see? The ice in your stock tank seems to have the sail of an attack boat coming up through it!

  2. Little bit of an optical illusion with that round bale, it's actually about 5 feet from the building. It's torn up because I'm a lousy loader operator. Next to it (and cleverly left out of the picture) is one I totally destroyed. In that one the dogs have taken up nighttime residence with much joy.

    A round baler with a kicker would be something to see. I'm guessing it would spend twice as much time in the shop as a regular baler.

    One of the very cool things about the winter landscape, including the stock tank ice, is the way it changes hour to hour, day to day. The way things have worked out this year I generally chop the float free, then chop out a chunk of ice from the perimeter of the tank and skid it over to hold the float down and submerged. This keeps the (relatively) warmer water flowing in for a few hours, melting the surface ice from below. Even on the coldest day the hold-down chunk melts enough within 4-5 hours to allow the float to pop back up and the water flow stops. The stubs of ice chunks freeze with the rest of the surface over the next 20 hours or so and the next time I see the tank they've become part of the ever-changing icescape.

  3. Brilliant post Shaun. Your discussion of language alone was worth the price of admission, so to speak.

    As always, great pics and videos.

    Climate change over time is a reality, I read something not too long ago about an upcoming Maunder Minimum. That would make life interesting and far less than fun. Think "mini-Ice Age." Not sure I put much credence in that, but you never know!

    The early predictions of a warmer winter in New England this year already seem to be so much nonsense. When it comes to weather it pays to be flexible (as in ready for whatever Mother Nature throws at you).

  4. Thanks Sarge.

    Language can be a lot of fun to explore.

    Climate can be fun to explore too, but the dishonest correspondents are hard to deal with. Sigh.

    It's been fun here to see how el nino has affected weather patterns, yielding in general what was predicted -- above average chances for increased precip and air temps. At the same time nature's variability has thrown some head-scratchers into the works. If the lefties weren't trying to use climate as a swindle the whole country could be having an enjoyable and adventurous learning experience. Sigh again.

  5. Where others see snow, I see next summer's water. Where I grew up an average winter was 30-35'. Being located in deep valleys, we usually didn't have wind. Lots of shoveling off roofs. My Dad had a 1920's vintage gasoline powered Cat. While he was getting it running, I could, and did, harnesses a team, load and feed, and be back at the barn. The Cat did make it easier on the livestock as he would plow trails around the winter meadow so they didn't need to wade belly deep snow.