11 Jan 2013

The Science of Snow

I live in Regina, Saskatchewan. We joke that weather is more than small-talk here. Too often, it's what everyone is talking about.

This winter, it's a topic with a vengeance. According to Environment Canada, we've been setting snow records this year:

- a new daily record of 24 cm November 9
- more snow in the first three weeks of November than we had all last winter
- the snowiest November since the 1880s

In December, the snow continued. And with another 20+ cm dump yesterday, January just seems like more of the same.

As you can probably tell, I'm not a fan of snow. But if you can't get away from it, you might as well dig into it. So I'm digging out a copy of Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, searching on the Internet, and turning to science to help me beat the winter blahs.

Snowflake Bentley tells the story of Vermont farmer Wilson Bentley, who studied snow and took pictures of snow crystals. In the book, someone tells Bentley that "snow in Vermont is as common as dust." I laughed when I read those lines. Did you know that snowflakes start out as tiny crystals no larger than a speck of dirt or dust, and join with other crystals when they fall? Most snowflakes are six-sided, and the size of one flake depends on the number of crystals forming it. When I was a child, I remember catching snowflakes on a mitten. An individual snowflake can be quite beautiful.

That's hard to believe when you look at the pile of snow in my front yard these days. Thank goodness for neighbours with snowploughs! Lately I haven't been looking at the individual snowflakes, like Bentley did, because there's just been too much of it. Some of it is packed hard; some is powdery; some has already melted and frozen often enough to form ice underneath.

The National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) has collected a whole database of types of snow. The NSIDC site talks about blizzards, flurries, and snowbursts like the ones we've experienced this winter. We're too familiar with blowing snow and drifting snow. That's all we seem to see on the roads lately. The site lists some unusual types too, like "névé" (refrozen and compacted) and "graupel" (rounded snowflakes or snow pellets).

My favorite is hoarfrost. We've certainly had what feels like record amounts of hoarfrost on the trees this winter, but I haven't taken the time to enjoy the beauty of it. I think I'll go out and take some more pictures, as soon as it warms up.

Meanwhile, I thought I'd share some of the snow sites I found:

National Snow and Ice Data Centre

Science of snow: FamilyEducation.com

Study snow science: University of Montana

Please leave a comment and share interesting facts about snow or snow science with us.

By Marie Powell

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