Rain on Snow: Little Understood Killer in the North



In October 2003, a severe rain-on-snow (ROS) event killed approximately 20,000 musk-oxen (Figure 1) on Banks Island, which is the westernmost of the Canadian Arctic islands (approximately 380 kilometers by 290 kilometers in size). The event reduced the isolated herd by 25% and significantly affected the people dependent on the herd's well-being. Because of the sparsity of weather stations in the Arctic and the lack of routinely deployed weather equipment that was capable of accurately sensing the ROS event, its detection largely was based on reports from hunters who were in the affected areas at the time.

Such events can significantly alter a frozen ecosystem—with changes that often persist for the remainder of a winter—by creating ice layers at the surface of, within, or below the snowpack. The water and ice layers are known to facilitate the growth of toxic fungi, significantly warm the soil surface under thick snowpack, and deter large grazing mammals. Although ROS events of the magnitude that was experienced in Banks Island in 2003 likely have reverberations throughout the entire Arctic and subarctic ecosystem, little is presently known about them and their impacts. As understanding of ROS events expands, many ROS-related aspects of the Arctic ecology and hydrology are likely to be discovered. They may include topics such as the fate of small mammals under the snowpack at the iced soil surface, the difficulty of ptarmigans to burrow into the iced snow, the limited infiltration of spring snowmelt into the iced over soil, and the changing drifting patterns of ice-crusted snowpack.