The Weight of Air

The earth’s surface, where humans live, is a complex interface. Even something as simple as snow is part of a complex energy transfer here.

The World of Snow

When the apparatus of the earth is intact, snow scarcely touches the ground here. It is a form of potential energy that is harvested in intriguing ways.

Above the complex, porous layer we call the soil, the air goes this way and that. It pushes east from the Pacific, stripped of water by its rise over the mountains. It curls north from the Columbia. It evaporates off the lakes and off fallen snow itself. What keeps it all in the air? What brings it into the air in the first place? The energy of the sun. Clouds are the energy of the sun being moved from place to place. It’s visible.

Clouds Above Okanagan Lake
At differing altitudes, wind speeds, and air pressures. The more water a cloud contains, the less energy passes through it to the land … until it falls as snow.

Isn’t that cool? Water is energy. There’s something fascinating going on here. Here is the mirror of a cloud:

Bunchgrass Stealing the Sun

When the clouds lie on the earth as snow, its energy frozen in place and time. If left to its own devices, in the deep dry air of the valleys, the snow will evaporate in a few days. Not all of it does. The grasses that rise above the snow act like antennae, capturing the sun, which then heats the stalks and turns that snow to water, which is in turn absorbed by the living plant at the base of the stalks, and by the rich microclimate of soil around it.

It’s not just grasses. The sagebrush, the great survivor of the summer drought, lives half its life in the cold in this climate, holding onto its leaves through it all.

Young Sagebrush Actively Turning Winter into Spring

The long winter is not a time of death or hibernation. It is the time during which clouds are slowly transferred to the earth.

Through these processes, the earth becomes the clouds. Then, slowly, when the winter fogs are gone, the sun draws them back out of the soil, moving the water from place to place and plant to plant before it is gone. The atmospheric pressure that sets the sky into layers of cloud and wind has its perfect mirror within the soil itself. Just as we can read atmospheric pressure by the clouds that flow with it, we can read the pressures within the earth by its effects:

The Story of Water

The soil has its clouds and storms and winds. It’s easy to see them blow.


Coming up in the next few days: more on these effects, and their relationships to photography, art and technology.

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