Winter is a given in this part of North America, and the human population has adapted to living in frigid climes. Of course adaptation doesn't exactly mean acceptance, but when looking at it from an environmental perspective, the hard edge of winter might soften a bit.
Harsh winters like the one the region is trudging through this year are actually beneficial to the ecology in a number of ways.
To begin with, the extra snow and ice help raise diminishing lake levels that have been of concern the past few years. Helen Domske of NY Sea Grant tells 2 the Outdoors: "Ice kind of blocks that evaporation, then it will help to eliminate the evaporation, and when it thaws it adds water to the lake itself."
Amazingly, despite the brutal conditions, there is microscopic life teeming beneath the ice, already beginning the approach to spring. Tiny algae called diatoms are are setting up the foundation to the food chain.
"It puts like a pulse of food out there," explains Domske, "because the zooplankton, the little animal plankton, eats the diatoms, and they will be food for the small fish, and the bigger fish take advantage of that."
Yet another benefit is winter's toll on invasive species. Domske says that on the lakes, the hope is that the crushing ice will help to curb non-native intruders on more than one level of the food chain.
"It helps with zebra mussels and quagga mussels, by just breaking their shells apart. Obviously, round gobies feed on them very actively, so if we can help reduce their numbers through ice scour then hopefully the goby population would be affected. And that would be a good thing because gobies are a huge problem in the lake; they've really changed the food web dramatically."
On land the story is a bit different. Although winter provides a tremendous natural deterrent to some species, others seem beyond nature's grasp even in extreme conditions. There was hope that the deep freeze might do damage to the emerald ash borer, an invasive insect that has already done massive damage to ash trees across the country.
Ironically, although EAB does die off in extreme cold, it is the affected tree's bark that protects the ash borer larvae living within.
Mark Whitmore of Cornell University is an EAB expert. "When we get these really sharp lows that occur for a couple of hours in the middle of the night, the temperature of the trunk of the tree is still going to be much warmer."
In fact, Whitmore says, the killing temperatures might actually benefit the emerald ash borer larva in the long run. "Under the bark of a tree competition is pretty intense with the emerald ash borer, not with other species but within the emerald ash borers that are there. So if you kill 30 percent, you're actually releasing them from the competitive effect, and perhaps making stronger bugs."
So, while these glacial conditions often seem to grind life to a halt, Mother Nature again reminds us of the fascinating biology that lies just beneath the surface.
"Everything kind of has cycles," concludes Domske. "This is just part of the natural cycle, so bundle up and deal with it … nature does!"