Snow covers Washington D.C. Cherry Blossoms after St. Patrick’s Day snowfall, 2014. (Mike Licht/Flickr)

2015’s first snowfall has arrived and with it I wonder if this winter will be as brutal as the last.  2014 gave us record lows and snow accumulations, causing problems for public safety as well as the health of the watershed.

In a recent Washington Post blog post winter weather dominated the top five Weather events of 2014. How could we forget the seemingly endless snowfall that graced us from January to the end of March? Or the record breaking lows of last January?

The spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) is a common amphibian found in the fresh water wetlands and lowland forests of the Chesapeake watershed.

A recent field study shows this species is extremely sensitive to changes in salt concentrations. (Dave Huth/Flickr)The cold not only put a hampering on 2014’s spring flowers. It influenced an unusually large winter die-off among one of the Chesapeake’s most charismatic crustaceans, the blue crab.

Additionally, the unusual amount of snow and ice likely contributes to the increasing amounts of rock salt applied on the watershed’s pavement, not without its environmental consequences.

In a recent report, the U.S. Geological Survey found toxic salt concentrations in several of the nation’s rivers, including the freshwater portions of the Potomac and Patuxent. The study attributes the increase of stream saltiness in large part to over application of rock salt for de-icing in urban areas.

States mix salt and abrasives together for winter road treatment, storing the mixture in large covered domes. (Virginia State Department of Transportation/Flickr)

The high concentrations of chloride from dissolved rock salt are a particular problem for aquatic and terrestrial organisms alike. Although the species of the Chesapeake Bay are remarkably tough, able to withstand many variations in conditions, some organisms found further upstream are not as tolerant of change.

Though we can’t do much to change the temperatures or quell the snow or ice, we can improve the way we react to what winter throws our way.

If you don’t already, embrace the cold this year. Insulate your outdoor plants with snow (yes, snow works to protect roots from the cold air, much like mulch does).

Many car owners let their vehicle idle to warm it up in winter before driving. This practice is unnecessary and it wastes energy. (Marilyle Soveran/Flickr)

Frank and Audrey Peterman, the 2015 Forum’s Plenary Speakers, encouraged attendees to work towards greater inclusion and diversity in the conservation movement.Put on an extra layer instead of waiting for your car to heat up idling in the driveway or cranking up the heat in your home.

When managing snow on your sidewalks and driveways, use a shovel or a snow-blower for your back’s sake to have the lowest impact. If it’s stubborn ice you’re fighting, use sand, rock salt and other treatments sparingly the night before the snow or rain hits.

Most importantly, make sure to enjoy the winter. Watch the birds that have migrated to the area. Visit the watershed’s many parks—they’re still, if not more beautiful during the cold.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the DelMarVa peninsula, like many natural areas, is still accessible during the winter months. (Skyler Todd)To learn more about your options for de-icing, visit these online resources:

To see how beautiful winter in the Chesapeake watershed can be, check out these photo albums from the Chesapeake Bay Program and the Alliance:

  • Chesapeake Bay Program: Winter Wildlife Photo Essay Flickr Album
  • Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay: Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge Flickr Album