Making a Mountain of Biomass Out of a Snowbank

By Rona Johnson
As I look out my office window on a dull, dreary Tuesday afternoon, I've observed several grain trucks full of snow rolling down the street. As you may have heard, North Dakota has had record snowfall this year, receiving more than 30 inches of the white powder. It's gotten to the point here in Grand Forks, N.D., where there aren't enough places in town left to pile the snow without causing hazardous driving conditions.

At times like this, when I wonder what we could do to take advantage of all this snow before it melts and runs into the Red River, which forms the border between North Dakota and Minnesota. In a way, snow is like biomass. Just like switchgrass, which has to be mowed, snow has to be shoveled, and like municipal solid waste, people pay to have it removed.
Unfortunately, that's where the similarities end. The definition for biomass says it has to be living or recently dead biological matter that can be used as fuel for industrial production. OK, maybe snow can't be used directly as a fuel for industrial production, but in some areas of the country, it melts and runs into rivers and streams that are dammed for hydropower. I know I'm making a huge leap here.

On the other hand, like biomass, snow is renewable because when it melts in the spring, it increases soil moisture and raises aquifer levels. That water, in turn, is used in crop production, factories, municipalities and homes. I think we can safely say that having snow cover in the winter is a good thing in the Midwest, especially if it was dry going into the fall. However, it wasn't dry going into this fall, and already the news media is using the "f" word, which, of course, stands for flood. Snow also comes in handy if your water pipes freeze up in the winter. You can just go outside, collect some snow and boil it for drinking water.

I looked up "snow biomass" on the Internet and unfortunately couldn't find anything to support my claim. I did, however, find some information about biomass in snow, and snow algae. Both were in reference to snow cover on the Tateyama Mountains in Japan.

After my short search, I concluded that I am either way ahead of the scientific curve when it comes to identifying biomass, or I've just spent way too much time in subzero temperatures shoveling snow.

Rona Johnson
Features Editor
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