Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

The continuing photographic fruits of our unprecedented winter weather

with 64 comments

Austin has been through a week like none that anyone alive has ever experienced here. First came the ice storm of February 12th, which you’ve already seen a few pictures of. The weight of the ice caused many tree limbs to break, including a bunch in our yard. Especially hard hit were the Ashe junipers, Juniperus ashei, as shown in the top photograph. Falling tree branches took out power lines all over town. We began getting intermittent electrical blackouts. Then came 6.5 inches of snow, and the day after that some more ice. The power grid couldn’t handle the load because the outdoor temperature got as low as 8°F (–13°C) one morning and 9°F the next, as measured by our outdoor thermometer. For days on end the temperature never got above freezing. The official count was 144 consecutive hours below freezing, but if you take out a brief “surge” to 33°F (0.5°C) on Thursday the number of hours would be longer.

Power blackouts started intermittently but soon became long ones, with spells when we didn’t have power for 33 hours and later another 19 hours. Because the temperature inside our house dropped to 43°F (6°C), we slept in sleeping bags with layers of clothing on and a heavy quilt and blankets piled over the sleeping bags. We pulled out another relic of long-ago camping, a portable stove, and cooked on it in the sheltered entryway outside our front door, so at least we had hot drinks and hot meals.

Because all the accumulated ice and snow made roads treacherous, few people dared to drive. One car sat abandoned for days a couple of houses up from us; the driver hadn’t been able to get enough traction to keep going up the hill. On February 16th and again on the 18th I dressed warmly, put on my rubber boots, slung a camera over my shoulder, and with a walking stick in each hand for stability carefully wended my way the half mile downhill to Great Hills Park, all for the chance to take pictures of our unaccustomed winter white. On the intervening day and the following day I spent hours in our yard making closeups of ice-encased branches, icicles, and other things. Over the next several posts you’ll see some of the results. All three of today’s images are from Great Hills Park on February 16th. Chronologically the bottom one came first, while the sun still shone; the thick, tree-like vines are mustang grapes, Vitis mustangensis.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

February 20, 2021 at 4:34 AM

Posted in nature photography

Tagged with , , , ,

64 Responses

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  1. Wow!! I never thought I would see a post like this from you. Stay safe my friend!

    photosfromtheloonybin

    February 20, 2021 at 5:11 AM

    • Thanks. The pictures might lead you to think you’re seeing Ontario rather than Austin. I took plenty of icicle pictures, and I remember you warned me years ago about the danger of standing below icicles that were high on a cliff.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 20, 2021 at 6:40 AM

      • It is a very real danger LOL. We have had a couple of pretty bad storms here recently too, but at least we are used to it and have the resources we need. We have been watching the news about your situation, and I feel very bad for everyone suffering down there!

        photosfromtheloonybin

        February 20, 2021 at 6:44 AM

        • Texas wasn’t prepared for a week of winter this severe. Power plants of various types (coal, natural gas, nuclear) hadn’t been sufficiently winterized and had to be shut down; the state electric grid came close to a complete failure. Even now there are some people who haven’t regained electricity. Others are without water because of burst pipes. A boil-water notice is still in force in Austin because the city can’t yet guarantee a normal level of purification.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 20, 2021 at 6:57 AM

        • “Texas wasn’t prepared” – and that even if as early as 2011 they had a similar experience and were warned. But no, they didn’t heed the warning.

          Pit

          February 20, 2021 at 10:17 AM

          • I remember the frigid spell here in 2011. The freeze didn’t go on day after day after day the way the current one did, so maybe the authorities thought they were prepared. The point is that they need to be prepared for worse than what has happened. Let’s hope the lesson is learned this time.

            Steve Schwartzman

            February 20, 2021 at 1:09 PM

            • As it’s politicians and businessmen who are the decision-makers, I’m not so sure things will be improved. 😦

              Pit

              February 20, 2021 at 5:58 PM

  2. When only occasionally the winter is severe, it’s hard to be prepared. I used to live in MD and when it snowed there it was chaotic, everything would close. My Canadian roommate at the time couldn’t possibly understand why school would close. The situation in Texas is all over the news. Glad you are ok.

    Alessandra Chaves

    February 20, 2021 at 7:53 AM

    • This turned out to be the worst winter ordeal I’d ever been through, even including my years growing up in New York. As you said, people in the north are used to such things, while Texas wasn’t prepared for the unusually severe and sustained weather that hit us. The temperature will rise above freezing later this morning and fortunately will stay above freezing for the week ahead.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 20, 2021 at 8:04 AM

  3. You are resourceful, and I am glad you had hot drinks and meals. I feel like I am looking at photos of New England with all this snow you are having. Was this weather pattern considered to be an odd polar vortex?

    Lavinia Ross

    February 20, 2021 at 7:59 AM

    • Yes, the pictures could pass for New England—say Boston rather than Austin. We lucked out in having kept the camping stove and sleeping bags from decades ago; Eve even found two extra canisters of fuel for the stove, which we ended up not needing, as the first canister lasted a long time. I don’t know if a polar vortex was involved with what hit us.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 20, 2021 at 8:08 AM

  4. Great shots, I especially love that third one. Glad you’re well, so sorry that you were out of power, here-n-there, but it sounds like you were prepared and resourceful. We are some of the very fortunate ones: our neighborhood only lost power briefly on Thursday at the start of things, and it was barely at freezing at htat point.

    It’s been an interesting experience, but not one I want to repeat. I may have lost both of my bee hives and yesterday, I crunched around the garden to get a sense of what plants I lost. There are some big limbs from an Arizona ash that broke and some smaller limbs on a Mt Laurel and Almond Verbena. As for my perennials, some are doing well, others, well, I’ll know more in a couple of days.

    Tina

    February 20, 2021 at 8:26 AM

    • Although I’d previously photographed those mustang grape vines near the Floral Park entrance to Great Hills Park, the snow gave them extra appeal—but then snow tends to make everything look attractive, don’t you think? On the other hand, I’m not surprised that the snow and ice did in some of the plants in your garden.

      It’s a mystery why some Austin neighborhoods had power most of the time, while others lost it for long stretches. Officials say it’s because hospitals and the like have priority, and people near those prioritized buildings get the fringe benefit of electricity too, but I’m not sure I buy that. We’re both in residential neighborhoods, and look how differently we got treated.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 20, 2021 at 12:08 PM

      • I think there’s some validity to the contention that people on grids with ‘essential services’ nearby profit from that proximity. After Hurricane Ike, I was bemused by the fact that it made landfall here on Saturday, September 13, and our complex had power by Sunday afternoon. I heard suggestions then that we were linked with someone — NASA? hospitals? — and our experience during this freeze seems to confirm that. In fact, I’m almost certain that our two, two-hour outages were related to efforts to bring the grid back for other areas, since shortly after we lost power, some nearby towns had it restored. Then, it came right back on.

        It’s certainly one more reason to appreciate the place I’ve chosen to live.

        shoreacres

        February 21, 2021 at 9:00 AM

        • Whatever the reason, I’m glad you’re in a place where your power gets restored relatively quickly. My neighborhood clearly isn’t a priority for the electric company. I think many people here who don’t already have a portable generator are thinking of getting one.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 21, 2021 at 11:00 AM

  5. For people who are not used to ice and snow, it must have been especially hard to experience such harsh weather. It was good to read how you and your family coped and dealt with it. Power outages are quite common here in the BC Interior during severe snowstorms. Some people are using generators. So they can have heat and cook meals. Are things turning to normal now in Texas? Best wishes! Peter

    Peter Klopp

    February 20, 2021 at 8:55 AM

    • I didn’t know that power outages are common in the B.C. interior in winter. Given that reality, a generator makes sense. Even here in Austin I found out that one of our neighbors has a generator. Things are indeed heading toward normal. We’ve had our power back for three days now. We’re still advised to boil tap water. Several large tree limbs are lying around in our yard; when the tree service that we use will be able to get to us and clear all that wreckage, plus further cut back trees that pose a future risk, remains to be seen.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 20, 2021 at 12:56 PM

      • I am glad to read that things are looking up in your neck of the woods.

        Peter Klopp

        February 21, 2021 at 7:39 PM

        • We got to 70°F two days in a row, so the snow and ice disappeared. Except for all the wrecked trees, it’s like the whole thing had never happened.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 21, 2021 at 8:55 PM

  6. Glad you are ok! What a week for everyone here in the state.

    Misti

    February 20, 2021 at 8:58 AM

    • Thanks. One reason I moved to Texas was to get away from the cold, so not having heat in the house when the outdoor temperature plunged was a real punishment. I see your garden took a lot of punishment, too.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 20, 2021 at 12:59 PM

  7. I’m sorry to see all that damage in your garden, Steve. You know that ours is not better. It’s a real pity. But with power outages you were hit really hard. We only lost power two times, once for 3 and once for four hours. That didn’t present a problem at all. We were really lucky.
    Take care, and have a great weekend,
    Pit

    Pit

    February 20, 2021 at 10:33 AM

    • You’re lucky indeed to have lost power for no more than four hours at a stretch, unlike us. We don’t actually have a garden, but a bunch of large tree limbs came down in our yard and will have to be cleared (by a service, not by us). On the good side, I enjoyed seeing lots of icicles on our rain gutters. I know it’s Saturday but all the days have blended recently.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 20, 2021 at 1:03 PM

      • Even before that winter outbreak I had hired a “tree gardener” to come by on Tuesday, not for removing broken branches, though, but to shape/trim trees, remove parasites, and cut down a few dead oaks. Now we’ll have to change the work order.

        Pit

        February 20, 2021 at 5:55 PM

        • It’s good you got your order in early. The tree folks and the plumbers are suddenly booked up for months.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 20, 2021 at 9:01 PM

          • I’m glad, too. I talked to our tree guy on Monday, just to give him a heads-up of our situation, and he told me he had had 140 calls in just two days. He won’t be able to do all the planned work plus the new, though. For quite a bit of it we’ll have to rely on our handyman. But that guy is great. He helped me freeing our garage door right away after I had called him. Well, not exactly right away: he had to free his own driveway first to be able to get his truck out.

            Pit

            February 21, 2021 at 11:10 AM

            • I think a lot of people will be improvising and making do for weeks to come. You’re more fortunate than some people.

              Steve Schwartzman

              February 21, 2021 at 11:14 AM

  8. Wow, what an ordeal you’ve been through. Let’s hope the authorities make the changes necessary to prevent future catastrophe and not let the lesson pass without changing. Time will tell.

    Eliza Waters

    February 20, 2021 at 2:32 PM

    • I’ll say we’ve been through an ordeal. A neighbor this afternoon said he thinks we’ll all suffer from some amount of PTSD. Time will indeed tell whether the requisite changes get made.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 20, 2021 at 5:18 PM

  9. So sorry to hear! I have caught some news on this here in South Africa via CBN. I hope it is over soon and measures put into place to avoid the blackouts etc. Wishing you all the best. I do love the pics!

    carolinestreetblog

    February 20, 2021 at 2:40 PM

    • Thanks for your concern. I’ve lived in Austin 44 years and this was the worst weather-related situation that ever befell me here. At least I harvested a good crop of snow and ice pictures.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 20, 2021 at 5:21 PM

      • I cannot imagine all that snow and icy weather. I can understand no power as this is a problem in South Africa, which is a result of long-term corruption. I hope the situation there normalizes.

        carolinestreetblog

        February 23, 2021 at 12:06 AM

        • Things have gotten a lot better in the past few days, thanks. Speaking of weather disasters, it seems from what I can find online that your drought has eased up. Also, I’m sorry to hear about corruption in South Africa.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 23, 2021 at 8:17 AM

          • That is good! Yes, the drought has eased up. We have had wonderful rain this summer. The corruption is being taken care of very slowly in the justice system, however, the biggest culprits have yet to pay. So we wait and besides, there are always new corruption cases coming to light.

            carolinestreetblog

            February 23, 2021 at 8:51 AM

  10. I only slipped and fell on the ice twice walking around the neighborhood.

    Jason Frels

    February 20, 2021 at 5:54 PM

    • Sorry to hear you fell, even if only twice. I took the precaution of using my wife’s walking sticks (a.k.a. trekking poles), which not only kept me from falling but also let me reach places I never would have dared try getting to on my own.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 20, 2021 at 9:05 PM

      • I went out to Balcones Canyonlands this morning and had a very slippery hike

        Jason Frels

        February 20, 2021 at 9:16 PM

        • I can believe that. Today was the first time I drove anywhere, as the local roads had looked too treacherous during the week.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 20, 2021 at 9:31 PM

  11. It’s good to see a wider view from your lens; I especially like your second image. One question: is that your footprint in the snow on the apparently-thin ice, just to the left of center near the bottom? If so, I hope you were wearing at least hip waders and not just gumboots, in case it wouldn’t support your (modest) weight.

    krikitarts

    February 21, 2021 at 1:11 AM

    • On February 16th I wandered around with only the 24–105mm lens, the lower settings of which account for the broader views I made that day. Yes, there are a few footwear prints at the very bottom, though whether mine or a previous passer’s, I don’t know. For years I’ve used thigh-high rubber boots to walk through creeks and also on land that is muddy; this was a rare occasion to put my waterproof boots to use in snow as well.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 21, 2021 at 5:55 AM

  12. I’m glad you and your family came through safely. 6°C must have been extremely difficult. Viewing this much snow and ice with a photographer’s eyes would have been a treat in other circumstances, but is not so good when you can’t warm up again when you get inside. A minor issue, but did you manage to keep your batteries charged throughout? My sweetheart is in Jackson, MS, where they have had no water for days so his eagle scout training has been put to good use. It was back yesterday, but just a trickle.

    susurrus

    February 21, 2021 at 6:41 AM

    • Yes, I read what you wrote about Jackson, Mississippi. I moved south from New York to get away from the cold, and my wife is from the Philippines, so both of us had a hard time with such a low indoor temperature. We even wore our winter coats with the hoods up inside our sleeping bags. After I walked back home from two hours outdoors on February 16th the house briefly felt warm by comparison. We had half a dozen flashlights and plenty of batteries. During periods when the power briefly came back on, we charged our phones and were glad to get the house partially reheated. On the positive side, I took lots of pictures I wouldn’t normally be able to get.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 21, 2021 at 6:51 AM

  13. You and Eve certainly had a more difficult time than I did, since I lost power only twice, for about two hours each. I’m not sure how I would have coped in your situation. I had plenty of water and food, but I need to think about upgrading my ability to keep warm. I do have two portable, high-capacity power banks that allow me to charge both my iPad and phone multiple times; they certainly saved me in the hill country when I couldn’t recharge from my car because it was dead.

    I’d always assumed that layering my multiple sets of long underwear would do the trick, but I’m not sure about that now. I’m glad you had those sleeping bags!

    shoreacres

    February 21, 2021 at 8:46 AM

    • Now, photographically speaking: I especially enjoyed the first photo for the combination of the broken wood’s warmth with all that snow. Its shape looks rather like a flower beginning to open. In the last photo, the curves of the vines are as pleasing as those pastel colors. Even though the world was frozen, the vines seem to suggest movement.

      shoreacres

      February 21, 2021 at 9:05 AM

      • Split-open Ashe junipers were such a common sight that I had to include them—and those fresh wood colors—in a bunch of my pictures. Mustang grape vines are common here, and a favorite photographic subject. Add snow, and they become irresistible.

        Steve Schwartzman

        February 21, 2021 at 10:33 AM

    • Keeping warm was a big thing. We saw on the local news yesterday that someone in Williamson County had died of hypothermia. You might do well to invest in a sleeping bag that’s rated to keep you warm down to, say, 0°F. We bought a couple of portable power banks for our 2019 Philippines trip but ended up giving them away to relatives when we departed for home. Maybe I’ll buy another one now. Once last week I charged my phone from our Subaru, which I had to do without starting the car because it was in the garage and without electricity I couldn’t easily open the garage door (there’s a pull-cord to unlatch the chain for manual opening, but then it’s hard to re-engage the latch in the chain).

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 21, 2021 at 10:27 AM

      • The time to do the prep and make the lists for next time is now, while memories are fresh. One small example: it occurred to me at the last minute that I had plain water in my windshield washer reservoir. When I went out to buy solution, I discovered that most places here stock solution that’s good only to 32F. That wasn’t going to do. Finally, at a regular auto parts store I found some rated for 0°F.

        shoreacres

        February 21, 2021 at 10:33 AM

  14. Good to hear you are okay and things are starting to get better and warmer!

    Sheila Creighton

    February 21, 2021 at 10:42 AM

    • Thanks. Things have definitely improved. Starting late Saturday morning, the temperature has stayed above freezing and the sun shone all day yesterday.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 21, 2021 at 11:04 AM

  15. Welcome to the often denied and unprepared for Climate Change.

    MichaelStephenWills

    February 22, 2021 at 5:12 AM

  16. With great care you took fine advantage of this rare winter event. The mustang grape vines really got my attention.

    Steve Gingold

    February 22, 2021 at 3:54 PM

    • I really pushed myself, at the same time taking precautions: multiple layers of clothing, plus the two trekking poles. Those same mustang grape vines had gotten my attention a bunch of times over the years under normal conditions; the covering of snow made them photographically irresistible.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 22, 2021 at 4:18 PM

  17. I lived in Austin once upon a time, I remember society shutting down for simple dustings. I can only imagine. My heart goes out to y’all 🙂

    Jennifer Sala

    February 25, 2021 at 5:28 PM

    • Thanks. This was worse than anything I’d ever experienced in my 44 years here. Things are mostly back to normal now, though there’s a lot of debris around.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 25, 2021 at 6:08 PM

  18. […] may have been brought down a few days earlier by a heavy accumulation of ice. Notice once again the thick mustang grape vines, Vitis […]

  19. I’ve really enjoyed your posts about the winter storm. It was certainly unlike anything I’ve experienced since moving to Texas over 20 years ago. The storm was undeniably devastating, but as you have shown, and as I experienced as well, it was also beautiful, exciting, and full of once in a lifetime photo ops. It’s great to see that you were able to capitalize on these!

    • For both of us, this winter storm was like nothing we’d experienced in Texas since moving down here from places farther north. We both experienced long power outages (our two main ones adding up to almost the 55 hours you went without). This was my first post to show snow and ice from the recent storm, and you’ve seen others that followed; still more are to come. In retrospect, on the last day that I went out for winter pictures, I might have done better to try for a different location, as the roads had finally become mostly passable, but out of convenience I opted for Great Hills Park once again, and I still got more good pictures.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 1, 2021 at 1:57 PM


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