The Furlough and the Graupel

By Susan Jewell

Of all the negative aspects of my furlough from the Department of the Interior under the Federal government shutdown, one event will make me smile whenever I think of it. On Day 19 (January 9), I took a rare weekday hike with a furloughed friend from the State Department. Destinations to choose from were limited by the closing of some National Park sites, so we chose Riverbend Park in Great Falls.  We mostly wanted to get outside and disconnect from the news. I am also a naturalist, so I am always keeping an eye out for something interesting. The bluebirds on the Potomac’s riverbank gave us quite a show, seemingly oblivious to us as we got within easy eyeball viewing. The weather was cloudy and around 40°F, with a drop in temperature predicated from a front in late afternoon.

Toward the end of our hike, as we walked along the Potomac River, the wind picked up and I knew the front was coming. I looked upriver and saw what seemed to be a squall line of rain heading our way—a “curtain” of decreased visibility.  I exclaimed to my friend that it was about to pour and fumbled for rain gear in my pack. When I looked up a minute later, the curtain was an opaque wall of white and was almost upon us. Then the curtain was upon us, and rather than the downpour I expected, what fell from the sky was precipitation the likes of which I’d never seen or heard of.

I’ve lived from Maine to Florida, and I was baffled. It wasn’t rain, freezing rain, sleet, hail, or snow. What else was there? These were barley-sized pellets of compressed snow—solid, but very soft and quiet. They didn’t melt on us or even on the warm ground as snowflakes would. They didn’t bounce or sting like hail.  After few minutes, I began to get a kick out of this innocuous precipitation that looked like little pieces of styrofoam. The pellets fell for 15 or 20 minutes and were blown by the wind into piles that I could scoop up. Soon I was laughing with glee and grateful I got to experience this unusual phenomenon, whatever it was.

Graupel on Trillium

Graupel on Trillium by dlr_ license CC-BY-NC-ND

Apparently, the pellets fell over more than just the Potomac River.  As I drove home from Riverbend Park, the meteorologist on the radio explained about the “graupel” that had fallen. I memorized the word and looked it up when I got home. The World Meteorological Organization says it’s “Snow pellets. Precipitation, usually of brief duration, consisting of crisp, white, opaque ice particles, round or conical in shape and about 2-5 mm in diameter.”  I never know what delights I’ll find when I go outside.

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Post Script – The next evening, I attended the VNPS Potowmack Chapter’s monthly meeting, featuring Charles Smith’s program “How Plants Move.” The program room at Green Spring Gardens was packed. Maybe I was not the only furloughed Federal employee who suddenly had extra time to take advantage of the great programming? I also attended the Winter Greens Field Trip at Fraser Preserve that weekend with Margaret Chatham.  Between the two events, I realized how important VNPS was to keeping me connected with like-minded people when I suddenly was disconnected from my work and colleagues.  Thank you, VNPS!

Susan Jewell is a biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and a member of the VNPS Potowmack Chapter.