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Spring Series: How Do We Know It’s Spring? It’s Mud Season!

The warming days mean winter is almost over and a new season is upon us.  In the first part of WAMC’s seven-part series looking at spring traditions across the region, North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley looks at what has become our unofficial fifth season: mud season.
It’s a gloopy, gloppy, sticky, clumpy, icky, slimy, greasy annual irritant that kids love. This year, with four Nor’ Easters in March, there hasn’t been a lot of mud quite yet. But folks are preparing for the region’s fifth season: mud.

If you’ve lived in Vermont or the Adirondacks where dirt and gravel roads outnumber paved ones you may have heard tales of cars getting stuck up to their axles, and if it’s a REALLY good story, up to its hood,  during mud season. In Vermont state law allows towns to post town roads and state highways “…during winter thaws, rainy periods and when the frost is coming out.”   Thirty-three gravel roads in the Town of Jericho are posted until about the end of May, limiting vehicles of certain weights.   Town Administrator Todd Odit says these days, it’s not the “crazy” mud they used to get.  “When a lot of people think of  mud season they think of cars getting stuck and not being able to get out. And for the most part it doesn’t hit us that badly. We do a pretty good job with the road and the base and having the gravel we need.  So it’s not like those old pictures you see with you know the car stuck and people up to their waist in mud. Fortunately.”

Odit says tending to the soft gravel roads during mud season is a Catch-22 because the town’s road trucks are heavy and can cause damage, and there are other large vehicles that need to use the roads.  “The key problems are really you know trying to avoid damage from big trucks. Because if they get out there when it’s soft they can create a lot of ruts and if they start driving around the ruts the road gets wider.  That’s usually the biggest concern is trying to prevent some significant damage which then is hard for us to fix because if it’s soft you know and we go out there then we’re not really helping it, we’re creating some damage of our own. So it’s really that preventative of trying to keep people off the road that shouldn’t be on them. I mean you’ve got garbage trucks, fuel delivery trucks, you know people are trying to, I was talking with a logger who wanted to be able to go up on a road and get some logs out, propane trucks, kind of all over the place.”
Trail stewards have similar problems with hikers albeit on a slightly smaller scale.  Adirondack Mountain Club Chief Operating Officer Wes Lampman says human feet on a muddy mountain trail can cause serious damage.  "During the mud season the ice that is frozen in the ground is starting to thaw. So that’s adding a bunch of moisture to the soil. Snowmelt is quickly melting out adding more water to the trails.  And then rain. There’s no vegetation what-so-ever on the trees so all of that rainwater is falling directly onto the trails without getting any type of protection from that foliage. So it’s really susceptible to erosion at that point when it’s inundated with water.  A lot of times the erosion happens inadvertently in that people that are going out on the trail they see a mud puddle or a muddy section of trail and they’ll skirt to the edge of that wet spot. And by doing that they’re trampling the vegetation that’s growing on the side of the trail. And then, again, you know the soil is just so susceptible to erosion.”

Lampman, who works with the mountain club’s trail stewards, says there’s really only one option to deal with mud on a hiking trail.  “If you’re going to venture out during the mud season or during times when we’ve received a lot of rainfall making the trail’s wetter than they typically are we ask that hikers walk right in the center of the tread and that probably means right through either puddles or muddy sections of trail.  So it’s basically confining damage and erosion to the very center of the trail. You’re not skirting that and trampling vegetation. That’s probably the worst thing that folks could do is walk around a wet section of trail.”
So why is there so much mud this time of year across the region?  “Geologically mud is a mixture of really fine soil particles and their ability to make the sticky mud that makes mud season is a function of both the soil minerals and the way in which the soil is put together, all the different size particles in the soil.”

SUNY Plattsburgh Earth and Environmental Science Professor of Geology Dr. David Franzi has studied mud for 33 years.  He explains that mud is comprised of three components: minerals, soil texture and water.  “Most minerals are pretty inert. They don’t have an electrical charge on their surface. For example beach sand. The particles in a beach just rest on top of each other. They don’t bind. They don’t stick together. They don’t have any cohesion. But there’s a family of minerals known as the clay minerals. And these clay minerals have surface charges to them.  And these surface charges can cause them to bond to one another, very weakly, or they can bond to water molecules. Or water molecules can bond to them.  So part of that of that equation then is that these clay minerals can absorb and hold onto the water, they retain that water.  The second part of the equation is the soil texture and that has to do with the size and the arrangement of particles in a soil. So a sandy soil all the particles are about the same size passes water very easily. But clay-y soils, not only do they bond to the water molecules, but they also have very very low permeability so the water tends to stay in the soil.  So any kind of a soil that has lots of these really fine clay minerals is going to retain water and when it rains or when the snow melts it’s going to turn to mud.”

But Franzi says in this region abundant snowpack that stores the water throughout the winter and then melts in a short period of time leads to the notorious mud season.  “You go to anywhere in the Champlain Valley and Hudson Valley and up into the Adirondacks you’re going to find soils that are capable of getting really muddy.  They have a lot of those fine grain particles. But I think it has more to do with the availability of the water in the springtime that really produces the season – the mud season. These soils, by the way, these really fine grain soils in the summertime they can be really hard. The same thing that makes them susceptible to producing mud also when they dry out gives them a lot of strength so you can drive on them and things like that pretty easily.”

Weathering Heights Meteorological consultant Roger Hill is based in Worcester,  Vermont.  He says warmth affecting the frost is also a culprit.  “Of course in all of northern New England including upstate New York we get the colder winter of course and that freezes the ground and those warmer temperatures start to happen. That melts out the upper part of the soil and the fact that the ground below that soil is still frozen it doesn’t allow water to percolate.  So the net effect is you have this kind of frozen sort of imagine tundra and it’s not allowing the water to get deeper, deeper, deeper so it doesn’t really drain very well. So the net effect is you get these gigantic areas that have tremendous mud. But mud is really associated with the lack of percolation of the ground and if you don’t drain the top part of the soil you’re going to get mud.”

Hill adds that rain actually helps shorten the region’s mud season.  “It is interesting to note that sometimes rain can alleviate mud a lot faster and it doesn’t sound right.  But the reason for that is that that rain is going to work and percolating into that layer that’s frozen.  And so it helps to melt it out a little bit faster.  So rain is actually a good thing in mud season.  It doesn’t sound right I know.  But where does all that mud come from?  Well the moisture source of course is melted snow.  So it’s such a slow trickle that it really doesn’t kind of work deep into the ground as much so therefore you don’t really melt that frozen slab that’s underneath.  But on top of that frozen slab you get all this water and hence the mud.”

Hill laments that climate change is augmenting Vermont’s fifth season.  “Instead of the typical one mud season we’re getting sometimes mud in December, mud in January, mud in February and then as you get into real mud season which is typically thought of as late March into April. We’re seeing this sort of mini mud seasons all through the winter now because of our warming of the winter with these temperature oscillations.  With climate change we’re getting this much more frequently. So we’re seeing definitely more mud.  We’re seeing more snow melt out quickly when these oscillations of warmth take place. And occasionally we’re seeing more precipitation and these big precipitation events will just contribute down the road to more mud.”

Science aside, Jericho’s Todd Odit has more practical ideas as to why Vermont’s roads, at least, seem to be more prone to mud than other regions’.  “I think a lot of it has to do with the number of gravel roads we have and the fact that a lot of these roads really just started off as kind of wagon paths so to speak and were never really built correctly in having the good base and having the right material.  And I think it’s because of that we’re sort of notorious. It’s just you get the right conditions you end up with some pretty significant mud.”

One last question for the scientists.  If mud is a mixture of water and dirt, why is it so hard to clean? Dr. Franzi clarifies that mud is a mixture of water and microscopic minerals.  "We don’t necessarily like the term dirt very much around here!  It’s a mixture of different minerals.  And some of these minerals are very very fine.  Typically the clay minerals they also tend to be very very fine grain most are less than about 4 microns in size. A micron would be one one-thousandth of a millimeter. So these are really, really, really fine particles.  And I suspect that what makes them so difficult to get out of clothing and boots and things like that is that they get into the tiny little pores and you just can’t get them out of there very easily.”

So the old adage indicates that spring will soon have us working in our gardens and mud season will be behind us.  We can then look forward to the region’s unofficial sixth season: fall foliage! But that’s a story for another series.

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