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snow swales--things to do in winter, way to observe and interact, use for frost heaves and pockets

 
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So I know I'm a permie when I go outside to shovel snow in the nearby orchard--with a spade.  

I wanted to try to make some very, very temporary swales.  I'm not supposed to dig underground, so I just dug in the snow (we had about 6") some very lame swales kind of on contour (guesstimate method).  

My idea was that maybe when the snow melts it will infiltrate more inside the swales, starting to contour the land ever-so-slightly.  And that may help when it's rain.

And then, further, that maybe the uneven thaw and freeze in the swale and non-swale areas might swell unevenly and break up the subsoil some...???

I know snow melts mostly from teh bottom so that undermines this idea.  Hvae to run for now but welcome any thoughts.  thanks!
 
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As you noted in your post, snow melts from the ground surface up so Instead of making a swale to hold water, you want to make domed mounds where you want the water to soak into the soil. (It is the exact opposite of building in ground swales)

Redhawk
 
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Snow does melt from the ground up, but snow also insulates the ground from freezing. (6 inches under snow, the air temp is a constant 31 degrees, hardly cold enough to freeze soil.)

If snow is piled to the right, then the bare ground to the left would thus freeze deeper. Here in New England, bare ground can have frost 3 to 4 feet deep, which is why our roads heave so bad in the spring. Since frozen ground swells by 11%, where the bare ground is, would have a forced hump by frozen action. This is an incredibly powerful uplift. Consider this, in houses with foundations in New England, frozen soil can lift the house so much that it causes doors to be sticky, or fail to latch, and this is not just on a few houses, this occurs on most houses. Simply put, if soil is wet, gets below freezing, it will expand 11% no mater what is on top of it.

But this "hump" would only be temporary. Assuming the snow swale was on contour, it is possible that as the spring melts the snow, that water, running over frozen ground is diverted by this artificially humped winter soil, and could start to change the topography of the soil. This would be incredibly short in duration however. That is because frost also thaws from below, but is accelerated from the top if there is dark soil that attracts the suns warmth. So in a very short amount of time, the artificial hump, and melting snow would be at work.

I think it would change things, slow in the first few years. then faster as some erosion took place.

I think the biggest challenge would be to shovel a path through the snow in the same place every year. Maybe that is just me though, when the snow is in a heavy blanket it is hard to see. I had a tough time finding the center of the road as the many mailboxes I took out proved! (LOL)
 
Joshua Myrvaagnes
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Makes sense.  I would think the heaving and collapsing would also loosen the soil...but I imagine that it only affects soil that is good at retaining water already, whereas hard pan would not absorb much water and therefore heave little.

Has anyone ever tried utilizing this property of frost?

11% is a lot! That's a big shift.

I guess the problem of laying the trench in the same place each time would be a challenge. But if you dug up a tad of turf too by accident...(I'm not supposed to dig under ground but an inch is hardly anything, right?)

 
Joshua Myrvaagnes
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:As you noted in your post, snow melts from the ground surface up so Instead of making a swale to hold water, you want to make domed mounds where you want the water to soak into the soil. (It is the exact opposite of building in ground swales)

Redhawk



Makes sense.  Unless, of course, it rains on top of the smow... but in either case I'd make the same thing, a "pile" on contour with a dip next to it where I got the snow for the pile from.  I'm too lazy to get snow from elsewhere to make a pile on top of the whole snow layer, and I imagine it wouldn't make much more impact, right?

I'll see what happens.
 
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Another idea to throw in the mix would be to set up snow fences (natural or man-made) to cause deliberate drifts.  Then as the higher piles of snow melt (from the bottom) they'd infiltrate more water at those spots.

There's probably also ways to cause the wind to scour snow away from a spot so you don't have to shovel it.  Not sure what that method would be though...
 
Joshua Myrvaagnes
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Mike Haasl wrote:Another idea to throw in the mix would be to set up snow fences (natural or man-made) to cause deliberate drifts.  Then as the higher piles of snow melt (from the bottom) they'd infiltrate more water at those spots.

There's probably also ways to cause the wind to scour snow away from a spot so you don't have to shovel it.  Not sure what that method would be though...



Brilliant.

I was just thinking of piling something on contour (that is maybe hill-shaped) and blocks water from reaching the ground under it.  Then you have dry and wetter contours alternating.

Also wanted to put in the idea that frost pockets aren't a problem in dead of winter when nothing is growing anyway.  But on the other hand, if the opening up of the earth on these contours actually made big swales after a time then that would be a frost problem come spring.

Now what could serve the function of blocking snow? Bags of yard waste...maybe piles of leaves...stumps...big stones...?

maybe the fence idea would be better but that would mean being able to stick sticks in the ground, for really hard soil even that would be prohibitive.  

 
Joshua Myrvaagnes
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The fact that frozen soil has a significant strength advantage over unfrozen soil has prompted the use of artificial ground freezing to aid in construction projects where it is critical to avoid deformation of the ground adjacent to an excavation.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/frost-heave

The closest to a result for web search term "deliberate use of frost heaves"
 
Mike Haasl
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As to the frost raising up the soil in a cleared area, it will settle back down in late spring.  So I'd think of it as a temporary ridge of extra loose ground.  So any water moving across it would be slowed and sink in easier.  Unless it is really flowing and then it could erode away the loose ridge.

I haven't observed snow fences enough but most that I see are porous.  Maybe 50% open area.  So if I were to make one up for a spot, I'd be tempted to take a dead bit of brush and set that down upwind of my desired snow location.  Potentially a person could plant bushes or woody perennial plants that act as snow fences during winter.

If the snow is deep enough, you could maybe erect a fence using the snow to hold the fence up.  Like sticking a bunch of 3' branches into the snow, butt end down.  The parts sticking up would slow the wind and drop the snow.  I think.....
 
Joshua Myrvaagnes
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It seems natural to assume they would have moved cut stones the same way: on slabs of ice in waterways. Failing that, if there were large tracts of flat ice, at the time, between the Marlborough Downs (where the Stonehenge megaliths were quarried) and Stonehenge, perhaps the huge sarsens, affixed with sails, transported themselves, the way "sailing stones" of Death Valley, California (weighing up to a third of a ton) move sizable distances on their own

https://www.google.com/amp/s/bigthink.com/the-stone-age-was-not-stone-age.amp.html

And it says the Beakers dropped pottery on the ground in places, he theorizes to raise clay content in the soil and therefore wicking, causing heaves...wow!!!  This is a speculative but well argued article imo, fascinating at the least .
 
Joshua Myrvaagnes
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). Perhaps the ancients also knew ways to facilitate the growth of needle ice, by using rotted upright timbers in the ground as a place for vertical ice to form. Perhaps they used the giant stones themselves as heat sinks, pouring subfreezing salt water over the rock to encourage the expansion of ice lenses in the soil beneath.

Same article.  Wow!

The problem really is the solution,  ain't it.  What could this be used for?? Heave some swales into place, then prop them up so they can't sink to their initial level?  

(Niw, in my situation I'm not trying to swale the soil, just break up subsoil...it needs to look like a lawn on top that the State mower can go over.  Maybe banging stakes of scrounged wood into the ground would help...I do not have a broad fork or yeoman's plow, btw, nor a bunch of daikon radish and anyway it's winter.)

 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau Joshua, While I tend to agree with much of that article, it seems the author forgot a few things that would make some of his conclusions slightly off the mark.

I totally agree with his idea that all the disciplines of science should work together not either against each other or in exclusivity, we would never get a complete picture without working together.
If you go to Alaska and study the permafrost (which is what European soils would be during and at the end of the last Ice Age) It reacts differently than fully thawed ground, so experiments need to be undertaken for proper understanding of the mechanics he is talking about.

The blue stones of stone henge (and other henges found in England, wales and Scotland) had to be transported over land, no rivers from point a to point b, so maybe they would have used an "Ice Road" who knows, we don't have go back TV and without it, most of our ideas are simply speculation.

The errors science makes are usually because we are going on the reference points we are familiar with at the onset.
Example: on the first show of the TV series "Buck Rodgers in the 25th century" a "scientist" meets Buck Rodgers and holds up a hand held hair dryer, the scientist calls it a primitive Ray Gun, he was going off the knowledge base he already had, that is where science needs some work, to look beyond our "known" to gain real understanding of what we are studying.

I do believe, from most of the evidence of the stone age people (called that because no iron, copper or bronze has been found in excavations (so far)) they had good engineering knowledge which I'm certain came from trial and error correcting.
This was a population that had been making art just because it was art for quite a while, and they placed many of that art in the same places they found their ancestors drawings and handprints on cave walls or at sacred places.
Humans have almost always liked to make records of their experiences, either by vocalizing or painting on rock or by carving into the rock with another type of tool. (chimps can be observed using tools not only for food gathering but to make marks on objects (perhaps they are marking territory)).

Redhawk
 
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As to the henges, I like the idea put forth in the alternate history fiction Island in the Sea of Time by S.M. Stirling, where they were built as astronomical calculators by people whose worship was tied to the movements of the stars and the phases of the moon.

As to manipulating snowcover, I would look at winter cover crops. This is actually something to do before winter, so maybe next year, but whenever the last mow is, I would overseed with a quickly tall-growing cover crop, but really any cover crop that grows densely enough and leaves standing stems will work. I would do this in places where you wish to hold more snow. The snow that blows into the standing stems will be caught. The snow caught in amongst the standing stems will retain its structure long enough to set in place, ensuring that snowmelt in the amount of accumulation held by the standing stems and resultant bank occurs there, rather than blowing away to somewhere less desireable.

Needless to say, this would be even more effective if mowing stopped before the late part of the season to allow a pollinator and soil-building guild to grow up beforehand. Six feet of standing mixed stems could hold a lot of snow, and trap more, besides.

The best part is, from your perspective, that after the snow melts, nothing has really been done to alter the land so much that a mower shouldn't be able to run over it.

Depending on your desired outcome, I don't know if I would go around thinning the blanket of snow. What might be the effect of frost heave on an orchard whose alleys had been plowed to either side, mounding the snow up around the trees? What might differential frost heave do to the root zones of the trees? On the other hand, I could see deliberately denuding ground of snow in situations where I was trying to kill off invasive pests that hate the cold, in order to lower their survival rates, but probably not if frost heave damaged the root zones of established perennials and trees.

As with earthworks, I think the preparations for the snow swales, or whatever snow control measure you're talking about, are best accomplished before the first flake falls. You plant and grow the infrastructure needed to catch and control the snow, and then let physics and biology do their things.

-CK
 
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One thing that is nice about snow: it holds a lot of minerals in it. My Grandfather used to say of May snowstorms, "Natures Free fertilizer". It did not happen a lot, but with the ground thawed out, that snow soaked right into the soil, and did not run off.

Again, I am not sure what effect this would have, but if you have snow here, and put it there, over time I think that extra minerals in one spot would really add up. Add in areas not being frozen and I think some changes would take place.

As for Stonehenge, I think Joshua was talking about the Stonehenge of Salem, New Hampshire, and not the one in England. Here we move a lot of stuff over iced roads, especially back in the day. It is most probable, that they cut the slate from his town in MA, and moved it to NH over snow, or iced roads, to erect the Stonehenge of USA.
 
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Not really related, but kind of Joshua...

On my farm we plant fields according to the snow cover we get. I live on a big hill that faces the North, so it is wind-blasted to say the least. So much so that the big windmill companies were go to put those massive windmills here, but the town forbid it. Still that shows how windy this hill is.

Anyway, the wind is so strong that a lot of my fields get very little snow cover. Because of that I cannot plant much alfalfa. Alfalfa is not cold tolerant, so if the ground is windswept, it freezes deeply, and kills the alfalfa. But I have some fields that are shielded from the wind too. On some fields that are wind blasted, my fields are planted in only a 10% mixture of alfalfa. In other fields that are protected from the wind, they have 90% alfalfa in the seed mix. Other fields vary from 50% and so on. But the key thing to remember is that it is not the wind, but rather the lack of snow cover by the wind that dictates how I farm.

Again, it is not really related, but it kind of shows that snow does have an impact on modern agriculture.
 
Joshua Myrvaagnes
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Thanks for  the responses.  

Has anyone had big frost heaves happen on their land, or deliberately caused one? If so, what caused it?

I'm not concerned about harming the tree roots in the orchard, the trees are still very small.  Also, the orchard is not plow-able, they just let it melt.

I went out today and everything had melted.  I saw no evidence of land heaving.  The soil is very wet,  at least the top of the soil is holding onto a lot of moisture.  The steeper parts of the grass are brown, the flatter are greenish.

So, anyone have frost heave observations or experiences to tell?
 
Travis Johnson
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Joshua Myrvaagnes wrote:Thanks for  the responses.  

Has anyone had big frost heaves happen on their land, or deliberately caused one? If so, what caused it?

I'm not concerned about harming the tree roots in the orchard, the trees are still very small.  Also, the orchard is not plow-able, they just let it melt.

I went out today and everything had melted.  I saw no evidence of land heaving.  The soil is very wet,  at least the top of the soil is holding onto a lot of moisture.  The steeper parts of the grass are brown, the flatter are greenish.

So, anyone have frost heave observations or experiences to tell?



I live a few hours north of you (4 Hours from Boston), and there is hardly any frost in the ground. We got about 2 inches of frost, then 8 inches of snow, but last night we got heavy rain and it melted all the snow. What little frost we did have, is now coming out of the ground. I do not mean by driving over and breaking through, it is just melting on its own. It looks like Spring out there. It is crazy for December.

But that is up here, I suspect where you live there was never any frost in the ground in the 2019-2020 winter yet!
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