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Yamagata days: A night with the monsters

Life on land

"These snow covered forests with their trees of ice and snow do indeed resemble great white figures in the snow".

Peter Hylands, Andrea Hylands

December 3, 2022

The Zao National Park (a quasi-national park designated for protection and sustainable use) is a protected landscape managed by the governments of Yamagata and Miyagi Prefectures. Forest species include the Aomori Fir and Japanese Beech, the latter particularly on lower slopes.

We move through the mountain high forest at night and that adds another entirely different dimension to this winter world.

Snow journey

Trains take us from Tokyo to Ginzan Onsen, (Ginzanshinhata, Obanazawa-shi, Yamagata).

We arrive in the late afternoon, the snow covers the buildings, its forms flowing, sculptural and delicate in the fading light. 

“The steep banks surrounding Ginzan Onsen are also deep in snow, an occasional pathway shovelled through its deepness takes you away from the buildings and into a white world.”

Here we discuss how Japan’s snow country is changing because of the impacts of climate change.

The snow monsters are telling us their story

We are now on Zao Mountain in Yamagata Prefecture where the monsters walk up every hillside, these are not really monsters, but this is the natural world at its most dramatic.

We should also not forget that we are on what is a still a group of active volcanoes, the Earth’s energy displayed here over the long centuries past. The snow covered trees add beauty and contrast to these landscapes.

This volcanic activity of course means hot springs in the snow and the Okama Crater Lake and its five colours. Here too is an ecology, which includes the Asian Bleeding-heart Lamprocapnos spectabilis, a plant with bright pink and heart shaped outer petals and the contrasting white inner petals.

The snow monsters of Zao Mountain are Aomori Firs Abies mariesii. The process of making snow monsters works something like this, with winter comes the wind from Siberia, the moisture from the Japan Sea is then cooled as it crosses the Asahi Mountain Range and forms the super-cooled droplets that accumulate as frost on the Firs of Zao Mountain. And so a very large snow monster is born and usually so in late January.

This process of making ice trees or juhyo was once more widespread than it is today, and until the 1930s also occurred in Hokkaido and Nagano Prefectures. Today snow monsters still occur, but increasingly rarely and in Aomori, Akita and Iwate Prefectures, as well as of course in Yamagata Prefecture.

The snow monsters of Zao Mountain are also shrinking, both in the bulk of the snow monster and in the contraction of their distribution, now confined to the upper reaches and higher altitudes of the tree's former alpine distribution. Given their economic importance, as the snow monsters are among the wonders of the world, and the environmental issues occurring here, these are serious problems and the solutions to which are, in most part, beyond the control of Japanese authorities. The issue is a global one.

When I look closely at what is occurring to the ecology here, it is not that much different to the combination of factors that are impacting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. These factors include climate change and the disruption to climate systems including ocean currents, warming and the impacts of heavy pollution. In the case of Yamagata the pollution is airborne, in the case of the Great Barrier Reef, the pollution is from toxic runoff from farms and sediment from extensive land clearing / deforestation in the river catchments which flow into the ocean.

This does not only mean warmer temperatures but a general disruption of weather systems. It appears that contaminants from China and elsewhere, including sand and oxidised soot particles (the later with significant effects on climate and human health) are directly affecting the snow ice formation, and this partly accounts for the shrinking size of the snow monsters themselves.

In addition to these problems, trees on the mountain are being attacked by insects, this process became evident in 2013 and speaks of the increasing environmental stress on both the global and local systems. A species from the Leafroller (Tortrix) moth family was the first to attack the trees in the forest system. This was followed in 2015 by an infestation of wood-boring beetles. Some trees in the forest are now dying. We should remember that the changing and stressed Great Barrier Reef has also enabled Crown of Thorns Starfish, Acanthaster planci, to flourish and threaten the reef as their population increases.

So what the snow monsters are telling us is the story of Planet Earth, they are telling us all, no matter from which country we come from, to tread lightly on this planet. It is in this way that we will all have a future. Just as the Great Barrier Reef does, the snow monsters also tell us that this is not just a story about ecology, it is also an economic story that involves the livelihoods of very many people.

Our warm thanks as always to the Yamagata Prefecture Government and staff.