Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Snow

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Podcast Transcript

If you live anywhere away from tropical latitudes, you might have experienced snow. In fact, depending on where you live, you might have experienced a whole lot of snow at various points in your life. 

As a substance, snow has some very unique properties. On the one hand, it is very simple; it is just ice, but on the other hand, it is also extremely complex. 

Snow can be very beautiful, but if you have to deal with it often enough, it can be very annoying and even dangerous. 

Learn more about snow, what it is, how it is formed, and how it functions on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Several times in my life, I’d had the pleasure of witnessing someone experiencing snow for the first time. 

The first time I saw it was during my freshman year of college. A girl who lived in my dorm had grown up in Hawaii and had never seen snow. When it began snowing, she ran outside and couldn’t believe that white stuff was actually falling from the sky. 

Given the demographics of the listeners of this podcast, there are probably a good number of you who have never experienced snow before.

Then, there are people like myself who have experienced snow their entire lives. Ever since I was born, I’ve had to deal with snow every winter. The first time it snows, it is very pretty, and it seems quite peaceful because snow absorbs soundwaves. However, after several months, it grows old. 

So, regardless of whether you’ve experienced snow or not, you can probably at least acknowledge that it is an important meteorological phenomenon. 

That brings us to the first thing we have to address: what exactly is snow? You know it when you see it, but what exactly is it? 

There are several different definitions of snow you can find in various dictionaries, but they are all pretty similar. Mirriam Websters’ defines it as “precipitation in the form of small white ice crystals formed directly from the water vapor of the air at a temperature of less than 32°F (0°C)”

In the introduction, I mentioned on the one hand snow is pretty simple, and this is because snow is just a form of ice, frozen water. 

However, there is obviously more to it than that. Snow is not just frozen drops of water. That is known as sleet or hail. What makes snow snow is that it comes in the form of snowflakes. 

Snowflakes are small, light crystals of ice. What makes snowflakes different than sleet is that sleet is frozen liquid water. Snowflakes form directly from cold water vapor, skipping the liquid form of water completely. 

Snowflakes do not have a uniform shape, size, or structure. It has been said that no two snowflakes are alike, and that is technically not true, but for all practical purposes, it is. One estimate puts the number of possible snowflakes at 10158, that is a one with 158 zeros. 

That is vastly larger than the number of atoms in the universe.

Despite the fact that every snowflake is different, there is something that they all have in common. Every snowflake has, in some way, six sides. 

There are eight broad categories that snowflakes can be classified as, with a further 39 categories that can be further broken down into 121 subtypes.

Why, if there are an almost infinite variety of snowflakes, do they all have six sides? It seems rather limiting for something that is so unique. 

It has to do with the shape of a water molecule. 

Water, as you are aware, consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The way they bond is at an angle such that it almost looks like a pair of Mickey Mouse ears, with the oxygen atom as the head and the hydrogen atoms as the ears. 

To be a bit more precise, the angle between the hydrogen atoms is 104.5 degrees. 

When water forms an ice crystal, the positively charged hydrogen atoms are attracted to negatively charged oxygen atoms, and given the angle of the water molecule, the most efficient way the molecules form a crystal is in the shape of a hexagon. 

Tiny variations in temperature, pressure, humidity, and wind result in each snowflake being different despite all having similar hexagonal shapes. 

These crystals will collide with each other in the air, causing them to bond with each other and grow in size. This is known as aggregation. 

As snow crystals grow larger, they will eventually reach a point where they become so large that they will start to fall. 

It will start snowing. 

However, I should note that while it doesn’t happen often, it is entirely possible for single snowflakes to grow to enormous size. The record for the largest snowflake ever was recorded by a rancher named Matt Coleman in January 1887 outside present-day Miles City, Montana. It measured 38 centimeters or 15 inches in diameter. 

There was no photographic evidence of this monster flake.

For snow to reach the ground, the entire distance from the cloud to the ground has to be at or below freezing. It is entirely possible for snow to melt as it is falling if it passes through a layer of air above freezing. 

Assuming all these conditions are met, snow will eventually reach the ground, where it may begin to accumulate. 

I say may because if it is early winter, the temperature of the ground may be above freezing, and the snow will quickly melt. It is entirely possible that it might accumulate on surfaces such as grass but melt on surfaces such as roads with blacktop, which captures more heat. 

Snow that accumulates on the ground is susceptible, depending on conditions, to drifting. A snow drift is similar to a sand dune. Loose snow crystals can be blown by the wind, where they will pile up. 

Snow drifts can cause huge problems. You might have seen photos of entire homes that have been buried by snowdrifts. Snowdrifts can be created on roads, which can make them impassible. 

It is surprisingly easy to stop snowdrifts by putting up barriers called a snow fence. Snow fences are quite porous, but they break up the wind and prevent snow from accumulating into drifts. 

Where I live, some farm fields will have snow fences constructed in the winter to prevent snow drifts from developing on highways. 

Measuring snowfall isn’t as easy as you might think it is. There is a difference between snow depth and snowfall.

Both measurements are not exact.

Snowfall has to do with the amount of snow that falls over a short period of time, usually over 24 hours. 

The measurement is usually taken on a device known as a snowboard, but not the kind that you ride down a mountain.

A snowboard is just a small square board that is colored white so as not to absorb any excess heat, and it is usually elevated off the ground. It should also be placed in an area where drifting is not likely to occur. 

Observers then take a measurement at the same time every day and then clear off the snowboard to measure the next day’s accumulation. 

The reason why measuring snowfall is so inexact is the same reason why measuring total snow depth is inexact.

In theory, the total snow depth is just the sum of all the individual snowfalls that season. 

After snow falls, several things can happen to it. The top layer can melt from sunshine, it can sublimate, going directly from solid to vapor, but most importantly, it can become compacted.

Snow is usually pretty light, and when it falls, there is air around all the individual snowflakes. However, as more snow falls on top of it, the air is pushed out, and the individual flakes are compressed. In extreme cases, where the snow never melts, the snow compresses so much you wind up with glaciers and ice caps.

This is true for a 24-hour period, but this is especially true over the course of an entire season. 

All that being said, the records for snowfall and snow accumulation are astounding. 

The record for snowfall in a 24-hour period was set in Silver Lake, Colorado, on April 14-15, 1921. A total of 76 inches, or 6.3 feet or 1.9 meters of snow fell in 24 hours. 

In 1997, 77 inches of snow may have fallen in Montague, New York, but the observations weren’t reliable enough for the record to be certified.

The most snowfall over an entire season was recorded in 1998 and 1999 at the Mount Baker Ski Area in Washington State. They recorded an incredible total of 1,140 inches or 95 feet or just under 30 meters of snow. 

What is responsible for such incredible snowfalls? All of the areas I just mentioned have at least one of two things in common. It is either in the mountains or it is near a large body of water. 

If a location is situated in the mountains, it can be subject to what is known as orographic snow. This tends to happen a lot on the Pacific Coast of the United States.

Warm, moist air will collide into a mountain range, where it will be pushed up the side of the mountain. Once the moist air goes up the mountain, it faces a drop in temperature, which causes the moisture in the air to precipitate out as snow. 

I’ve personally seen just how crazy the snow levels can get in Northern California. Several years ago, in late May, I visited some national parks in Northern California, and they still had over 20 feet of snow in some places. 

The other thing that can cause extreme snowfalls is the lake effect. This is pronounced on the eastern shore of the Great Lakes. 

Winds around the latitude of the Great Lakes tend to blow west to east. As they blow across the lakes, they will pick up warm, moist air. No matter how cold it gets, the Great Lakes are so large that they can’t freeze over in the winter. 

After the wind has picked up the moisture over the lakes, the temperature drops once the air blows over land again, causing the moisture to precipitate out. 

So, where I live, not far from the western shore of Lake Michigan, gets much less snow than everyone in the lower peninsula of Michigan who lives next to the lake.  The eastern shore of Lake Erie, which has cities like Buffalo, can also get incredible amounts of snow. 

One of the big differences between cities is how they handle snowfall. I was in Paris in 1999 when the city had what I would consider to be a light snowfall. However, because the Parisians weren’t used to snow, the entire city shut down. 

Likewise, I’ve seen the same thing happen in Hobart, Tasmania, and Dallas, Texas. A small amount of snow can cripple the entire city. Because it snows so infrequently and usually doesn’t last very long on the ground when it does, they have no equipment or procedures in place for clearing snow. 

However, in a major city like Minneapolis, they could potentially handle well over a foot of snow without the city shutting down. That is because they have a fleet of plows that are out clearing the streets the moment it starts snowing. Bridges will often be cleared by large snowblowers that will shoot the snow into waiting dump trucks that will take it away. 

If you live in an area that doesn’t get much snow, the next time you visit a northern city, take a look at the streets. You will notice that they never have reflectors embedded in the road that stick out. That is because they would be destroyed by snowplows the first time it snows.

I want to close with something you might have heard about snow: the fact that the Inuit people of the far north supposedly have dozens of different words for snow. 

This is technically true, but it doesn’t mean what people often claim it means. When this fact is mentioned, it is usually in support of the idea that language can shape someone’s view of the world. In the case of the Inuit, they live in a snowy region where snow is an important part of their lives, so they have more words to describe nuances in snow. 

This is technically true, but it says more about their language than it does about how they view snow.

In the Inuit language, when an adjective describes a noun, it makes a new word. In English and in many other languages, it is simply two words. So, the Inuit may have separate words for wet snow and dry snow, but we can express the same exact thing. It’s just that we use two separate words. 

Snow might not seem like something very exciting, but when you consider everything that goes in to the creation of a simple snowflake and how it can accumulate on the ground, snow actually has a lot going on. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.

Today’s review comes from listener zelmrgan over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write…

So great!!?! (But….)



Don’t Do Another Episode Like Soyuz 11.

It Still Haunts Me To This Day.

Thanks, zelmrgan! Thankfully, there aren’t too many incidents like Soyuz 11, so there just aren’t that many similar episodes that would be possible.

That being said, there have been plenty of tragedies throughout history and many of those stories will eventually be told on this podcast.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.