Last winter we had quite a lot of snow. In April, we were still navigating from building to building through narrow pathways dug into snow several feet high. The days were quite bright and sunny, and it was remarkable to us that the snow was still there. One day, after our winter retreat, we were moving a very heavy carpet from one building to the other, which none of us could lift. We managed to get it on a sled and pulled it from the main house to the meditation hall. And then, by that very afternoon, the snow was completely gone. We couldn’t understand how that had happened, literally from morning to afternoon.

One of the nuns at the hermitage, Sister Ahimsa, wrote about it to her son, who is a geophysicist. This is what he wrote back:

You seem very impressed with how the snow melted. I’m sure it was amazing to see. The world transformed overnight.

Melting is a nonlinear process, which means melting begets melting. Also, snow requires a lot of energy to change from ice to water, and this energy does not cause any change in temperature. What this means is that the snow can actually be above freezing without melting. If all the snow gets really warm over a few nice days, then it can melt all at once, really fast. As the melted snow starts to run through the unmelted snow, it helps to speed up the process. Then, when the ground appears, it absorbs much more sunlight and the melting really speeds up. The melting has probably been happening for weeks, unseen, and then the snow layer collapsed all at once.

This sort of regime shifting happens all the time in the earth sciences. Things hold on the way they are, even in very unfavorable conditions, and then at some invisible point something snaps and everything changes. Some scientists are worried our climate may act like that, that it might all of a sudden change dramatically because of the way we are forcing it.

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