"By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge
the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches." ~Proverbs 24:3-4

Not Just For Kids

Let it Snow

Snow commonly falls during the winter season in cold areas of the country. In regions near the poles and on high mountaintops, snow can stay on the ground all year. However, a greater quantity of snow falls in the northern United States and southern Canada than at the North Pole.

I have many memories of snow from my childhood near Buffalo, New York. Buffalo is accustomed to towering amounts of snow from “lake-effect” storms coming off Lake Erie. We would get huge snowdrifts all the way up to our roof! In Western New York, including the city of Buffalo, annual snowfall ranges from less than 80 inches to more than 160 inches. Now I live in the Sonoran Desert where we had an inch of snow one year and that was a big deal!

Flagstaff, Arizona is supposedly one of the snowiest cities in the United States, with an average annual accumulation of about 100 inches. Sunrise Mountain in the White Mountains of Arizona has the state’s highest average annual snowfall, at 243 inches. The town name of Snowflake, Arizona comes not from snowflakes, but from the names of Erastus Snow and William J. Flake, Mormon leaders who settled the area in the 1800’s.

Snow is actually frozen water vapor. Unlike hail and sleet which are frozen water, snow crystals form when water vapor in clouds turns directly into ice without going through a liquid phase. These tiny crystals of ice arrange themselves in intricately beautiful patterns that resemble frilly stars or frozen lace. Their symmetrical six-sided or six-pointed shape comes from the hexagonal structure of an ice molecule.

A snow crystal’s complex framework bounces light off countless tiny surfaces like a prism. The resulting reflection of all wavelengths of visible light gives snow its white color. Solid ice doesn’t have any air spaces between the frozen water molecules, allowing light to pass straight through and giving it a clear appearance.

Ice crystals are extremely sensitive to environmental conditions such as temperature, air currents, and humidity. Different microclimates on each side of an ice crystal produce asymmetrical shapes. Perfectly formed crystals do not always survive their fall from clouds which may be more than a mile above the earth. Fragile pieces can easily break off as they are buffeted by winds and bump into each other.

Sometimes when it is snowing lightly with no wind and bitter-cold air, a multitude of individual twinkling ice crystals will drift down from the clouds. At other times when the air temperature is slightly above freezing, bunches of ice crystals will cling together to form snowflakes that look like little puffs of cotton.

Snow consisting of snowflakes that melt slightly when pressed together is the best kind for making snowballs, snowmen and other snow sculptures. In the coldest weather, the ice crystals are frozen so hard that they won’t melt and therefore don’t pack well.

Snowflakes have a lot of air space between them as they settle on the ground, making a kind of fluffy blanket. That’s why a pan full of snow will not be full of water when it melts. Even though snow is cold, a layer of it helps insulate plants and animals from freezing air temperatures.

For kids, snow is fun and exciting. People who have to commute to work find it downright inconvenient. Ice storms can do a lot of damage and blizzards can be dangerous. Nevertheless, heavy snow is the only weather extreme so benign that it can be used for recreation – e.g. sledding, skiing, snow shoeing, ice skating and hockey. You can’t play in tornadoes, hurricanes, or heat waves!

Did You Know…? The biggest snowflake on record measured 15” across and fell on January 28, 1887 at Fort Keough, Montana. In 1971, a giant 8” x 12” snowflake reportedly fell in Siberia.


SNOW CRYSTAL - An ice crystal composed of frozen water vapor.

SNOWFLAKE - An aggregation of ice crystals that collide and stick together as they fall. Snowflakes can measure up to 2" across and contain hundreds of individual crystals.

SLEET - Raindrops that freeze into ice on their way down.

HAIL - Balls of ice that form when drops of water freeze inside cumulonimbus clouds during thunderstorms. They can become quite large when strong updrafts keep them circulating inside the cloud, adding layer upon layer, until they finally fall to the ground.

Eskimo Snow

Eskimo groups include the Inuit of northern Canada, the Kalaalit of Greenland, the Inupiat of Northern Alaska, and the Yupik of southwestern Alaska. In 1911, anthropologist Franz Boaz mentioned that the Inuit had several different ways to say snow. With each succeeding reference in textbooks and the popular press, the number of Eskimo words for snow gradually grew over the years to 50, 100, and as many as 400! Contrary to popular belief, linguist Steven Pinker in his book The Language Instinct says “Counting generously, experts can come up with about a dozen.”

Inuit terms for snow include: “kaniktshaq,” snow (generic); “qanuk,” snowflake; “qanik,” falling snow; “anijo” or “qanikcaq”, snow on the ground; “muruaneq,” soft deep snow; “qetrar,” crust on fallen snow; “nutaryuk,” fresh snow on the ground; “kanut,” fresh snow without ice; “qanisqineq,” snow floating on water; “qengaruk,” snow bank; “navcaq,” snow formation that may collapse; “cellallir,” to snow heavily; and “pirta,” snowstorm or blizzard.

Inuit terms for ice include: “hiko” or “tsiko,” ice (generic); “tsikut,” large broken up masses of ice; “hikuliaq,” thin ice; “akuvijarjuak,” thin ice on the sea; “quahak,” fresh ice without snow; “peqalujaq,” old ice; “pugtaq,” drift ice; “manelaq,” pack ice; “ivuneq,” high pack ice; “maneraq,” smooth ice; “nilak,” fresh water ice; “tugartaq,” firm winter ice, “kuhugaq,” icicle; and “kaneq,” frost.

Related terms include: “iglu,” snow hut (igloo); “utvak,” snow carved in block; “uvkuag,” block of snow for closing the door of a snow hut. The other Eskimo groups have their own root words for snow, to which various adjectives are added. When you consider how many words there are in English to describe snow (ice crystal, slush, snowflake, powder, etc.) it becomes evident that to actually count all of the words that people in snowy cultures have for snow would be impossible.


http://nsidc.org/snow (Facts, photos, glossary, and frequently asked questions about snow, from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.)

http://homepage.eircom.net/~snowland/whatissnow.htm (What is Snow? Fun facts, science projects, and activities.)

www.snowcrystals.com (This online guide to snow crystals and snowflakes includes photo collections, an explanation of snowflake physics, laboratory-grown snowflakes, and snowflake activities.)

Related Pages

The Snowflake Man (Make paper snowflakes and learn about “The Snowflake Man” who photographed thousands of snowflakes and taught us that no two snowflakes are alike.)

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