So far, Blizzard of '96 is no threat to wildlife or Chesapeake Situation could change if the storm worsens or snow stays on ground

Blizzard Of 1996

January 10, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

While the Blizzard of 1996 may seem like a catastrophe from a human point of view, Maryland's wildlife and the Chesapeake Bay should escape relatively unharmed from the 2 feet or more of snow blanketing the state -- unless it lingers or gets much worse.

Deep snow covers up the acorns, nuts, grasses and other food that sustain wild animals and birds through the winter.

It also could flood streams and bay tributaries with dirty, salt-laden runoff if it melts all at once.

But state officials say not to worry, at least not yet.

"It's not how much snow we have. It's how long it lasts," said Joshua L. Sandt, wildlife director for the state Department of Natural Resources.

"It's not a real extreme situation" for the bay, said Robert Summers, manager of emergency operations for the state Department of the Environment.

Winter is hard on wild animals and birds, with freezing temperatures and food in scarce supply.

Under those stresses, many may become ill and die.

"This is nature's thinning time," said Mr. Sandt. "The fittest survive this type of weather."

While this may be an unusually harsh winter for Maryland, Mr. Sandt said, it does not necessarily mean mass starvation or die-offs for the state's wildlife.

Animals and birds are equipped by nature to cope with foul winter weather, he explained.

Even if they do not hibernate, most build up fat reserves in the fall that will sustain them when food is hard to find.

Wildlife also seek shelter in bushes, trees and the snow itself when storms strike.

Deer bed down in thickets that break the wind; wild turkeys roost in trees; birds use conifer trees.

Some wildlife, such as grouse, even burrow into the snow, using it as insulation against the cold, Mr. Sandt said.

Feeding and even moving around could become very difficult if the snow does not melt, he said, or if an ice storm covers it with a layer of ice.

As the snow melts, it will run into creeks and streams and ultimately the bay, taking with it the accumulated rock salt, fertilizer and chemicals used to clear the streets.

While those contaminants are not necessarily good for water quality, Mr. Summers, the environment official, said their impact is greatly diluted by the volume of water running off the land.

That is why the state gave Baltimore City officials permission to dump snow removed from downtown streets into the Inner Harbor, Mr. Summers said.

"The rainfall in the city and the runoff from it contributes as much [contamination] as this kind of thing does," he said. While 2 feet of snow seems like a lot, it really is only the equivalent of 2 inches or so of rainfall, he pointed out.

"As this snow melts, of course, it's all going to run into the harbor anyway," Mr. Summers said.

If it melts gradually over a week or two, its impact will hardly be noticeable.

Of course, snowmelt runoff will carry some of the hundreds of tons of road salt that were sprinkled on roads and driveways.

"Too much salt is bad news," Mr. Summers said. "It's very corrosive and kills plants." But it's needed to clear roads, and its impact on the bay is minimal, he said.

"It comes with a big slug of runoff, so it's already diluted," he explained. "And by the time it gets to the bay, the bay is already salty."

But for the bay's water quality, which is impaired by too many nutrients, the timing of the snowmelt and runoff is important.

If the snow lingers until spring, the fertilizer and other nutrients washed into the bay then may contribute to harmful algae blooms, he said.

Or, if the snow melts all of a sudden, and is accompanied by heavy rains, it could produce flooding and blockage of some streams.

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