Types of Snow

What type of snow do you like? I swipe right on anything involving powder.


Ridgeline Rick

1/23/20246 min read

It’s been said that the number of words a language has for a particular thing is indicative of how important that thing is in the society. Giving this some thought, you can see this application in a wide variety of “important” things. Take for example, your significant other, how many words or “pet names” does our society have for them? Honey-boo, lover, bae-bae, beau, honey bunny, pumpkin, sweetheart, and if you’re into Seinfeld… Schmoopy. The list will go on and on. Why? Because our significant others are IMPORTANT.

There is a linguistic myth-legend that was started by anthropologist, Franz Boas. He studied the life of the local Inuit people of Baffin Island, Canada in the late 1800’s. He was there doing some post-graduate geography studies, and reportedly was curious about how the outside world influences culture in different geography.

The story goes that as part of his research and experience he reported that the culture had many terms for “snow.” For years, this was termed in the academic groups as a bit of a hoax (because technically, they didn’t really have 50 words for snow, right?) However, the latest studies prove that he was actually right! But… not quite in the way he supposed. There is actually more than one Inuit language. Apparently, it’s a group of languages in larger family of languages called “Eskimo-Aleut”. There’s a whole bunch of words for snow, because the base word can have suffixes attached that changes the meaning. To put this in context, in English we would have a sentence describing snow, whereas the Inuit language would have a longer more complex single word. In the end, though, there’s a lot of ways to describe snow!

Over the years, I’ve learned some things about snow that make a lot of other things make more sense. For example, there’s wet snow, and dry snow… and a whole lot of variation between the two. What makes it “wet” or “dry” is really how much water is in the snow. Measured by taking a core sample of snow (say, 12 inches) and melting it down to see how much water is in that 12-inches of snow (this can also be done by simply weighing the snow, and mathematically calculating the water weight). The amount of water in an inch of snow is VERY interesting. It is dependent on both temperature and humidity. In some high humidity environments, snow is very wet with just 3 inches of snow melting down to just 1 inch of water. This is what is found in much of the south. Idaho’s snow, on the other hand, is about 12 inches of snow to an inch of water.

You may have heard people in Idaho laugh at how 6 inches of snow shuts down a city overnight in the South. If we think their snow is like our snow, it IS laughable. We easily handle 6” of snow here in the Treasure Valley. Sure, it’s a bit annoying, but if you just drive a bit slower, you’re fine. It just sort of blows out of the way, while you’re driving. We have dry snow. With a ratio of about 12:1, we get some very fine snow that might compact down to thick snow that is slick, if it’s constantly compacted while falling. The most dangerous points are often in parking lots, where the snow has compacted to a thin sheet of ice, and people have fender-benders parking.

In the South, it’s a whole different type of snow! It’s WET snow. Often with a ratio of 3:1, this means that the same 6” of snow will compact to 2” of ice once driven on. This makes it FAR more treacherous. It’s the primary reason why 6 inches of wet snow on the ground will SHUT DOWN a city. Wet snow, when you compact it, it doesn’t just thicken the snow, it is so wet that it compacts into ice. Even 3 inches of wet snow instantly turns to ice when driven on, making the driving conditions very dangerous, even if you’re the first person out. We can cut those poor folks in the South a little slack.

Something else to consider: a snowball fight in Idaho is a fun experience, when it compacts, anyway. There’s been many days where I’ve tried to make a snowball, and there’s just not enough water to hold it together. Down south, or when the snow is wet, a snowball fight can be downright dangerous. A snowball made with wet snow becomes an ice-ball that’ll give you a black eye or a concussion. The stakes are a bit higher for kids having a snowball fight with wet snow.

You have to compress a whole bunch of snow to create the icy conditions on the roads. Sure, you’ll see it happen in subdivisions and the like, but the city overall does a good job of removing the snow from main roads before it compacts. Even better, when snow is fairly “dry” it often just sublimates (moving from a solid to a gas) rather than first melting. If you’ve ever been out in the powder and it just falls off of you, this is DRY snow (a high number of inches of snow per inch of water). The reason Brundage has some of the best powder in Idaho (they’ve even trademarked it), is because of the high ratio of snow to water. Brundage has blower powder, which means it so light it blows around and is very much like skiing through air. Blower powder has a snow:water ratio of between 16:1 and 20:1. You read that correctly. TWENTY inches of snow to one inch of water. No wonder we don’t get wet when we fall in powder, right?!

Some places, like Utah, boast even lighter powder, sometimes reaching up as high as 24:1. That’s really light stuff!

Now that you know the difference between “wet” and “dry” snow is the amount of water in the volume of snow, let’s take a look at the different types of snow, all together.

The following is a chart that shows the many types of snow (actually, the kinds of flakes that make up the snow), and how it’s based on both a range of temperature and humidity.

Image Source is from: http://www.snowcrystals.com/morphology/morphology.html a more complete explanation of each of the types of crystals can also be found there: http://www.snowcrystals.com/guide/guide.html

It turns out that the simpler forms of crystals grow when the humidity is low and the crystals are growing slowly. When humidity is high and the crystals rapidly grow, you’ll find the more complex big crystals. Who doesn’t love those big fat crystals that float down when the temperature is just below freezing and higher humidity is around! They can get huge! I think the largest I’ve seen in Idaho have been around the size of a nickel, and those are something to see. It turns out though, that the largest snowflake on record measured a whopping 15 inches wide and 8 inches thick! Discovered and measured by a ranch owner in Fort Keogh, Montana in 1887.

While technically, snow is described as one of the seven principal snow crystal types (plates, stellar crystals, columns, needles, spatial dendrites, capped columns, and irregular forms), it’s really rare that we walk outside and proclaim, “Look honey! It’s spatial dendriting outside!” Yeah. No. We say “it’s snowing.”

Then we get out into it, and it’s either wet or dry, fluffy, sticky, or powdery, and sometimes it can be defined by the shape of the grains.

One of my favorite types of snow to both see and ski on is commonly referred to as “corn snow” or graupel. The word graupel has been used since the 1800’s, and has a Germanic origin meaning “pearl barley.” If we were to describe it using modern words, it looks like small beads of Styrofoam pellets on the ground.

Research of the words, however, revealed that while corn snow is pretty commonly used, graupel snow means different things to different people, depending on the region of the country. This just means you need to inquire if you’re having a conversation. Some folks mean the large fluffy flakes, others the Styrofoam beads.

Many folks just stick with the term corn snow. It seems to really sum it up, frankly. Regardless, whether you call it corn snow, graupel, or Styrofoam snow, the snow is formed when large-grained, rounded crystals form from repeated melting and freezing, or when a few snowflakes cluster and water vapor freezes around them. This type of snow often makes for excellent skiing when the bonds between the snow grains begin to melt (most often on the sunny slope). When this happens it provides a velvety surface texture which is perfect for many types of skiing.

There you have it. Wet, Dry, temperature, humidity, crystal types, clumping. A basic overview of the types of snow you’ll encounter. Which is your favorite?