Snow and Plants

How do plants survive the icy cold of snow and winter? Unlike animals, which can often leave, hibernate, or otherwise escape a harsh environment, plants cannot. Plants must stay where they are rooted and adapt to the conditions around them. One of the most difficult aspects of cold, wintery places is that most water is frozen, and plants cannot take up ice.

Taiga in Alaska
The narrow, conical shape of these evergreen trees prevents snow from building up on the branches and damaging the trees.
—Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Adaptations

Deciduous plants handle the lack of water by shedding their leaves, which tend to evaporate water into the air. During cold winter months, most deciduous plants drop their leaves and go dormant. Evergreen plants keep their foliage, but their leaves and needles have a thick, waxy coatings to reduce water loss.

In areas that receive frequent snow and may have cold weather year-round, such as in the Arctic, plants have adapted in other ways. Trees may grow close to the ground, or grow in shapes that help them shed heavy snow more easily. Plants may hold onto dead leaves for insulation, or use deep snow like a blanket to protect against the cold. Some evergreens also have a special valve in their cells. This valve automatically seals off individual frozen cells to prevent a chain reaction of freezing.

Mutual effects

Just as snow shapes plants, plants sometimes drive snow patterns. Forest vegetation influences how much snow reaches the ground, and how quickly it melts. Snow and certain vegetation spatial patterns reinforce each other. Near the treeline, where forest gives way to tundra, trees may grow in ribbon forests. As the name suggests, these are narrow bands of trees, and in the open spaces between trees, snow often forms drifts. The forest ribbons operate like snow fences. In the summer, deep snow shortens growing-season length, impeding seedling establishment and growth. As the summer progresses, however, melting snow drifts enhance soil moisture near the drift, favoring plant growth.

Ribbon forest
Pine trees form a ribbon forest in the high-altitude Mount Zirkel Wilderness in Wyoming.
—Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For more information see Snow Resources.

Last updated: 10 January 2020