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12 Chilling Facts About Snow

The magic of winter is best captured in a winter wonderland covered with a perfect blanket of snow. While the grandeur of the scenery is enough to warm your heart, zooming in on each flake that has fallen is a jaw-dropping look at the artful aspect of Mother Nature’s work. Bundle up and dig into these facts about the flakes that fall from the sky each winter.

Snow Isn’t Actually White

While we may dream of a white Christmas with perfectly snow-capped scenery, it turns out that the flakes are actually translucent since they’re ice crystals. So, why do blankets of snow look white? It’s actually because of the way our eyes perceive the light frequencies passing through. Water is clear, and since snow is frozen water, it stands to reason that it should also be clear. But when it freezes, the molecular structure is altered, changing the light’s photo pathways and thus altering how they bounce back, causing our eyes to perceive snow as white.

About a Septillion Snowflakes Fall Each Winter

While songs like The Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things” celebrate the joy of “snowflakes that fall on [your] nose and eyelashes,” the enormous number of them makes it quite a likely scenario. Every winter season, 1 septillion snowflakes drop down onto the earth. Just how much is that? It’s a trillion trillion — or a one followed by 24 zeros.

It’s Very Unlikely Two Snowflakes Are Alike

Closeup of various snowflakes.
Credit: Janne Tuominen/ Shutterstock

The long-ingrained belief that no two snowflakes are exactly the same has gotten some pushback. In particular, in 1988, twin flakes were reportedly discovered in Boulder, Colorado. Even so, in 2019, the Library of Congress confirmed that scientists still believe it’s mathematically very unlikely that any two of those septillion flakes will have identical molecular structures. After all, not every water molecule is the same, so from the very base, there’s already variety. Take that difference and multiply it by the complex methods by which the atmosphere creates snow crystals, and the chances of any two flakes having started with the same materials and gone through the exact same formation are next to none. As for that matching 1988 pair, it’s possible they were quite similar, but of course, the truth has melted away.

The Largest Snowflake Recorded Was More Than 15 Inches Wide

More than 100 years ago, a particular flake that fell on Fort Keogh, Montana, is said to have shocked with its impressive size. Ranch owner Matt Coleman found a snowflake on January 28, 1887, that was 15 inches (38 centimeters) wide and eight inches (20 centimeters) thick — or as he described it to a magazine, “larger than milk pans.”

There’s a Word for the Fear of Snow: Chionophobia

Aerial view of car driving through snowy forest.
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Environmental fears are so prevalent that words have been coined for the fear of thunderstorms ("astraphobia") and the fear of hurricanes ("lilapsophobia"). Of course, there’s also one for those who shudder at the idea of snow: "chionophobia." These weather fears aren’t unusual — between 9% and 12% of the population have one.

The Number of Inuit Words for Snow Is Hotly Debated

When anthropologist Franz Boas reported in a 1911 book that the Inuit people had as many as a hundred words for snow — including “aqilokoq” for softly falling snow and “piegnartoq” for snow good for sled driving — it set off a debate that is still argued to this day. Part of the reason is that there are so many dialects of Inuit languages, and each has its own terms. The Washington Post asserted that “there really are 50 Eskimo words for ‘snow’” in 2013, while Farmers’ Almanac argued that the English language has nearly as many, citing well-known terms such as “flurry,” “powder,” and “whiteout,” as well as less-used ones like “sastrugi,” the irregular ridges caused by the wind in the snow.

The Largest Snowball Fight Had More Than 7,500 Participants

Person holding up a snowball in gloved hands.
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The current record for the largest outdoor snowball fight was an event with 7,681 people on January 31, 2016, at the PotashCorp Wintershines Festival in Saskatoon, Canada. The record was set to be broken in December 2017 at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, but the event was canceled — ironically because of a winter storm warning.

Snow Can Roll Itself

Rolling snow into balls to build a snowman has long been a winter tradition. But in rare instances, snow can roll itself in a phenomenon called snow rollers. Think of it as the tumbleweed of the winter, with wind — usually traveling at least 30 miles per hour — pushing across the ground and gathering the snow into doughnut-like cylinders. Also known as “wind snowballs,” “snow doughnuts,” and “snow bales,” these cylinders were most notably last seen in ​​Ottawa in 2018, but have also been seen in Scotland and the midwestern U.S.

A “Golden Snowball” Is Awarded Annually in New York

 Benches covered with snow at High Falls, Rochester, New York with tall buildings and a cloudy sky in the background
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Sometime in the 1970s, a friendly rivalry started in upstate New York between the five biggest cities — Albany, Buffalo, Binghamton, Rochester, and Syracuse — to see who accumulated the most snowfall for the season. The winner would be awarded the honors of the winter’s Golden Snowball Award. There's no trophy, just prestige — and the tradition continues to this day.

There Are Four Kinds of Snow Crystals

While we always think of snowflakes falling from the sky, there are actually four different kinds of snow crystals. Snowflakes are the simplest, as single ice crystals or clusters of them fall. Hoarfrost are the crystals on a surface that’s colder than the air’s frost point, whereas graupel are rounded pellets from snowflakes that come from cool clouds as liquid, but freeze along the way. Finally, polycrystals are the accumulations of many ice crystals.

Moist to Wet Snow Is Best for Building Snowmen

A snowman in a hat, scarf, and gloves on a snowy field.
Credit: Vitalii_Mamchuk/ Shutterstock

Snow is divided into five categories based on its moisture content, which is defined as the amount of free water compared to ice crystals: dry with no water, moist with less than 3% water, wet with 3% to 8% water, very wet with 8% to 15% water, and slush with more than 15% water. Moist and wet snow work best for optimal snowman-making. It also helps to work on level ground with shade on cool surfaces, avoiding asphalt, which can hold heat.

Snow Absorbs Sound

There’s a certain sort of quiet magic to a winter wonderland — and there’s a scientific reason for that. The fluffiness of the snow allows it to absorb sound, just like other porous objects. Usually, it takes just about two inches for a notable difference. But when it melts and refreezes, it becomes harder and can actually amplify sound.

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