Snow scene

Fresh snow and a cold morning create a beautiful winter scene — with or without squeaking.

Upper Midwest folks are a sturdy lot who just go about our day-to-day business without much fanfare.

So while national news headlines shriek words like “bomb cyclone” when the eastern part of the country has a little snow and the thermometer drops below freezing, we face 20-below-zero weather with tepid responses like “cold enough for ya?” while we’re standing in line at the local convenience store making small talk.

That’s because we also know that complaining about it won’t do any good — even though it’s our nature to grumble a bit. If frozen toes and fingers bother you that much, you can always move to the warmer climes like Florida.

But there are always trade-offs, like battling frozen iguanas falling out of trees. Yes, it’s true. When the temperatures reach horrifically cold levels like 40 degrees in the Sunshine State, the cold-blooded iguanas become immobile and fall to the ground.

That’s a familiar sight here in Wisconsin, where we’ve seen that same thing happen all season to the Green Bay Packers’ defense. Perhaps that’s why defensive coordinator Dom Capers is now considering other career alternatives, like moving to Florida.

Imagine the horror for Floridians. With their movements already impaired by a heavy outer layer of clothing that we in Wisconsin call a sweatshirt, they are forced to strain their necks looking upward to avoid being clobbered by a reptilian Popsicle.

Wildlife officials were warning residents to not bring iguanas inside because many will be fine once the weather warms and their blood starts moving — sort of the way Wisconsinites feel come April. And many timeshares have exclusions that prohibit the housing of reptiles with sharp claws.

But if the recent cold snap we had that started Christmas Day seemed a little long, you’re correct. The National Weather Service in La Crosse said the area had 13 straight days during which the thermometer did not hit 20 degrees. That’s the longest stretch since the winter of 2000-01.

I’m not sure what’s so magical about 20 degrees; that seems like an arbitrary number. I’d say it’s simply a reflection of winter in Wisconsin. It’s the mornings when we’ve dipped into the minus-20 degrees with a minus-40 wind chill index — of which I had plenty during that stretch — that are extreme.

You know it’s cold when your face hurts after only a few seconds and the mucus flowing from your proboscis immediately freezes, giving you the appearance of an Arctic walrus.

You also know it’s cold when the snow underneath your feet squeaks with every step. I was curious about this phenomenon and also in need of additional column material so I wanted to find out why snow squeaks.

Apparently there is no consensus in the scientific community to explain this. The Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies at the University of Wisconsin says:

“When you walk on snow, your boots apply a pressure. If the temperature of the snow is warmer than approximately 14F or -10C, then the pressure exerted by your boot partially melts the snow allowing it to ‘flow’ under your boot and no sound is made. When the snow is colder than -10C, the pressure from your boot does not melt the snow, and instead the ice crystals beneath your boot are crushed making a squeaking, or creaking, sound.”

Other scientists say squeaking snow is a sign of poor lubrication, which is a lack of water. The Scientific American magazine interviewed a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who says snow goes through a process called sintering when the tiny bonds in each flake bond together. And when you step on that snow and compact it, those millions of bonds are broken, causing the squeaking sound — again depending on the amount of liquid in the snow.

Additional research would be needed to verify the lubrication question, but there is agreement that snow squeaks when the temperature is at 14 degrees or colder.

So the next time you are sintering away at your favorite barstool imbibing in another form of lubrication, you can amaze your friends by asking them if they know the temperature at which snow starts to squeak.

Then again, they might be more interested in frozen lizards falling from trees.

Former Tribune editor Chris Hardie and his wife, Sherry, raise sheep and cattle on his great-grandparents’ Jackson County farm.


Local news editor

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