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Japan's Snowy Winter Dazzles from Space (Photo)

snowy japan coastline
The coast of Japan's Hokkaido Island on March 21, 2014. (Image credit: ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by the Expedition 39 crew)

Record snowfall in Japan this winter painted landscapes white, as seen in this photograph taken from the International Space Station.

The image was snapped on March 21, a little more than a month after a huge storm killed 19 people in northeast Japan. It was a winter of repeated heavy snows for the country, with storms that dropped feet of frozen precipitation at a time.

Of course, snow is a way of life in parts of Japan — some regions are even designated "snow country," meaning any place where heavy and deep snows are common. The government designates more than half of the country as "heavy snowfall zones," where piles of snow frequently cause problems such as collapsed roofs and snarled roads. [Earth from Above: 101 Stunning Images from Orbit]

The snow storms are the result of cold air from Siberia blowing over the Sea of Japan, accumulating moisture. When this cold, wet air hits the mountains that form Japan's backbone, the result is thick, heavy snow. Perhaps the biggest fans of this winter weather are Japan's iconic macaques, or snow monkeys. This native species is famous for taking dips in local hot springs when the weather gets chilly.

In the new astronaut photo, the coast of Hokkaido, Japan's large northern island, is seen after a snow. Agricultural lands are the brightest white, criss-crossed by roads. The river near the bottom of the image is the Tokachi.

Along the coast, gray rectangular features are greenbelts, according to NASA's Earth Observatory, which released the image. Japan has planted and nurtured these forested lots for more than four centuries, according to the World Bank. In normal circumstances, the greenbelts mitigate the effects of high tides, sandstorms and salty sea winds. During the Japan tsunami of 2011, the greenbelts sustained damage. Nevertheless, their existence helped prevent damage by slowing down the rushing water and capturing debris that would have otherwise smashed into homes and buildings, a 2012 World Bank report found.

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Stephanie Pappas
Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science. She covers the world of human and animal behavior, as well as paleontology and other science topics. Stephanie has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has ducked under a glacier in Switzerland and poked hot lava with a stick in Hawaii. Stephanie hails from East Tennessee, the global center for salamander diversity. Follow Stephanie on Google+.