Weather for Knuckleheads: How Snow Works

Not everyone knows how snow gets so darn… well, snowy. This included the author, up until recent examination of this lovely and oncoming weather phenomenon. In honor of the potential onslaught of a winter wonderland, let’s take a look at how the magical stuff ends up floating down from great heights to grace our gray wastelands of pavement and cement.


Formative Years

The magic number you need to remember is 35.6. For the rest of the world, it’s 2. These numbers are representative of the temperature below which snow will actually fall. At 35.6 degrees Fahrenheit and 2 degrees Celsius, snow is conceived. At a warmer temperature than these our lovely snow will quickly melt into ugly and irritating sleet. Any warmer and it will be rain.

Once the optimal temperature is reached, there must be tiny ice crystals (moisture) in the air for snow to be formed. These tiny ice crystals collide together and become larger and larger snowflakes. When these dainty bunches become heavy enough they will fall to the ground in the form that we love best: snow.


Snowflakes, Extreme Individualists

The ice crystal clumps that combine in the atmosphere are often referred to by their more elegant name, “snowflakes.” These snowflakes always have six sides since the ice crystals join in a hexagonal structure together, but can combine in an infinite number of ways. At lower temperatures snowflakes are small and boring. At higher temperatures snowflakes have more complicated and exciting structures.


Isn’t all Snow Wet?

Yes and no. You’re probably familiar with the designators “wet snow” and “dry snow.” The type of snow that falls depends on how many tiny ice crystals have collided together, which is in turn determined by air temperatures. Dry air that is also cool is conducive to small, powdery snowflakes that aren’t very keen on sticking together.

When the temperature of the air is warmer, the ice crystals are more likely to melt around the edges and therefore stick together easier. These ice crystal clumps turn out to be colossal heavy flakes that make up what is called “wet snow.” This is the type of snow that you want for crafting the perfect snowman friend or engaging in the juiciest snowball fight. “Dry snow” on the other hand is better for winter sports like skiing or snowboarding.


So What?

Now you can proudly explain how white fluff floats from the sky when the air turns chill and the seasons become brisk. Have fun this winter season trying to determine what kind of snow will fall and why, and whether or not you should break out the snowboard or the snowman hat.