The Science of Snow

Happy snow day, fellow mad scientists! Whether you have the day off and you’re sitting at home sipping on hot chocolate, or you had to trudge through the snow and traffic to get to work or school, it’s hard to deny the beauty of a good snowfall!

But not only is snow pretty to look at, it’s actually really cool too! And in case you’re wondering how snow is made or what it does when it falls, fear not! We’ve been up since before dawn, collecting snowflakes, analyzing them, and coming up with some neat information to quench your curiosity. So without further ado, here is our science of snow!

Snowfall

The first thing you need to know is that a snowflake is actually an accumulation of snow crystals that forms when the atmospheric temperature is at or below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit, or 0 degrees Celsius). These flakes, which would normally be rain if it was warm enough, then fall to the ground and stay frozen if the ground temperature is at or below freezing as well.

However, snow can still reach the ground as snowflakes even when the ground temperature is above freezing, but only if it’s below 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius). As the flakes enter the warmer ground temperature, they begin to melt. But this melting causes the air immediately around it to cool, which slows the melting process, allowing the flake to stay frozen. How cool is that!?

Ground Snow

As for what happens to the snow once it reaches the ground, it depends on the conditions. If there’s a heavy wind while it snows, the snowflakes can get broken into fragments, which allows them to become more densely packed. The size, shape, and texture of snowflakes can change over time, even if the ground temperature stays freezing, but they can of course melt and refreeze as the temperature fluctuates, changing the snow to slush or ice. And if more snow falls later on, this can further impact the snow as well.

Frozen Factoids

  • Snowflakes usually reach a size of about 0.5 inches in diameter
  • Under just the right conditions (light wind, freezing temperature, etc.), flakes can get as big as 2 inches across!
  • While it can be too warm to snow, it can never be too cold
  • Snow requires moisture, so even the coldest areas of the world that are dry rarely get snow
  • Snow reflects high levels of ultraviolet (UV) light, and can cause snow blindness (or photokeratitis). Be sure to put on those safety goggles (or sunglasses)!
  • The highest snowfall ever recorded in a one-year period was 1,224 inches in Mount Rainier, Washington in 1971

So there’s your up-to-the-minute snow research report! Be sure to check out The Science Hub for more cool science and weather information, and don’t forget to subscribe and comment below with your best snow story! Until next time, mad scientists!