While we’re dreaming of snow, let’s talk about how it’s made

Friday, Jan. 26, 2018 8:49 PM

By Gabi Morey and Kristie Borchers

“Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow.” – Robert FrostIt’s January, and we still haven’t seen much in the way of the white, fluffy stuff this winter. Maybe this article will help bring some? Read, and do your snow dance and wish upon a star for the snow to start falling!

What is snow, anyway? Snow crystals are born in high-altitude clouds, thousands of feet above Earth. Clouds are made up of water vapor containing microscopic water droplets. Clouds are visible because a million trillion water droplets are collected in one area. At the very center of the water droplet is a tiny particle of dust or salt. With below-freezing temperatures, the water droplets become very complex snow crystals.

How do snowflakes form?

Dust (sometimes salt) acts as a nucleus for condensation.Water vapor condenses on the dust.The water droplet grows larger in size.When water cools, it freezes and becomes an ice crystal.The crystal grows six-sides.The crystal becomes heavier as more water vapor condenses and it begins to fall.The crystal’s shape continuously changes as it falls and experiences continued condensation.The crystals fall out of the clouds into warmer air, which makes them bunch-up together into snowNo two snowflakes are alike! Scientists have studied the growth of crystals in high-altitude clouds. In 1988, one scientist accidentally found twins in samples of ice crystals. While not identical, snow scholars called these two ice crystals “very much alike.” In the 20 minutes that it takes a typical ice crystal to fall to earth, two crystals would have to be exposed to identical conditions of temperature, pressure and moisture content. All collisions – and subsequent formations – with other crystals would also have to be identical, which makes identical snowflakes virtually impossible.

Snow is part of something called the cryosphere. The cryosphere includes the parts of the earth that are frozen in snow or ice. This includes the Antarctic, Arctic, sea ice, glaciers, as well as places such as mountain tops full of snow and ice, and even frozen soil.

Have you ever noticed that snow has a sound – actually many sounds? When fluffy, fresh snow covers the ground, it affects the sound waves by absorbing them. But if snow melts, then hardens again and gets an icy cover, sound waves will be reflected instead of absorbed, allowing sound to travel farther and sound clearer. You have probably also noticed that snow can crunch and creak. The colder the snow is, the louder the crunch. This is because of the ice grains rubbing against each other and creating friction, causing sound.

Despite feeling cold to the touch, snow is actually a great insulator. Winter campers know this because they don’t stay in a tent in the winter – they dig and create a snow cave! Some wild animals know this as well, as some will dig into the snow to hibernate, while others create tunnels under the snow in the subnivean layer so they’re able to move around with relative ease. The closer to the ground you get, the warmer it will be because of the warmth of the earth that is still left over from the summer sun, as well as from its core.

As those of us who live in Southwest Colorado know, snow is also incredibly important for our water needs for the year (not to mention river running!). We are dependent on the snow runoff for our irrigation, drinking water and so much more. Although we’ve had a dry winter so far, experts have said that our great snowpack from last year that filled our reservoirs may help keep us from truly dire straits. Here’s to hoping for more frozen water droplets coming our way soon!