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Original photo by Smit/ Shutterstock
6 Frosty Facts About Snow
Read Time: 5m
Article image
Original photo by Smit/ Shutterstock

Snow has a habit of sticking around for a while after it falls, sometimes for weeks — or even just in our mind’s eye. It’s often a symbol of calm, quiet, and fresh beginnings; famously, the impressionist painter Monet completed more than 100 snowy landscape paintings in his lifetime. As the winter season gets into full swing, gain a new perspective on cold-weather precipitation with these six cool facts about snow.

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Snow Isn’t Really White (And Sometimes It’s Orange)

Red snow after sand from Sahara across eastern Europe.
Credit: Magdalena Iordache/ Alamy Stock Photo

Most holiday carols allude to blankets of pristine white snow — an image that’s entirely charming but scientifically a bit misleading, because snow is actually translucent. The way light passes through snow crystals causes it to bounce back and reflect the whole color spectrum at once, which is what makes it appear white to the human eye.

Most snow discoloration appears in the days after it has fallen, as snow is driven or walked over, but it’s not entirely uncommon for the powdery precipitation to take on unusual shades as it’s falling from the sky. Take, for instance, the orange snow that fell throughout Eastern Europe in 2018, tinted thanks to dust from the Saharan Desert being whipped up into the atmosphere by storms. A similar phenomenon caused brown snow to fall in Minnesota in 2019 thanks to dust storms in Texas.

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Snowflakes Can Be Massive

Snowflake on a blue background.
Credit: Mariia Tagirova/ Shutterstock

Temperature has the biggest influence on a snowflake’s size. When the thermometer drops below freezing, individual flakes are generally smaller and more dry; when temperatures creep upward during a snowstorm, snow crystals end up having a higher water content, giving them a chance to clump together to produce larger snowflakes. Generally, snowflakes are dime-sized or smaller, though it’s not uncommon to witness jumbo crystals anywhere from two to six inches wide. The world’s largest snowflake reportedly reached a massive 15 inches wide; while no photographic evidence exists, reports from an 1887 snowstorm in Fort Keogh, Montana, claim the flake was “larger than milk pans.” Some skeptical scientists say the record-breaking water crystal likely wasn’t an individual snowflake, but a lump of many, since it’s normal for snowflakes to clump together as they fall at different speeds.

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The First Snowflake Photos Were Taken by a Farmer

Wilson Bentley's Snowflake.
Credit: SBS Eclectic Images/ Alamy Stock Photo

We know that all snowflakes have six sides thanks to Wilson Bentley, a Vermont farmer-turned-photographer and weather scientist. As a teenager, Bentley was fascinated with snow, viewing individual snowflakes under a microscope and eventually developing his own technique to photograph the magnified images. Credited with capturing the very first photo of a snowflake in 1885, Bentley spent four decades photographing more than 5,000 unique flakes, recording climate conditions for each one and publishing his findings on snowfall. (Not surprisingly, he was nicknamed “The Snowflake Man.”) Bentley’s crystal-clear images — many of which are now housed in the Smithsonian — were referenced by scientists for decades.

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Earth Isn’t the Only Planet With Snow

Winter on Mars comes with a blanket of carbon dioxide snow.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Earth is the only planet in our solar system known to sustain life, but it’s not the only cosmic sphere with a form of snow. In 2017, scientists discovered Mars likely experiences snowstorms at night; even though the red planet is exceptionally arid, much of its polar ice caps are made of carbon dioxide, and it snows up to seven feet of the dry ice-like stuff each winter.

Venus also has its own — albeit unusual — snow, which covers the planet’s highest mountain ranges. Minerals from the planet’s surface vaporize due to the extreme temperatures (reaching nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit), entering the planet’s atmosphere. When they float back down, the dust-like particles collect as a metallic version of snow along high-altitude ridges.

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Many of the World’s Snowiest Cities Are in Japan

A view of Mt. hakkoda in Aomori City.
Credit: imagenavi/ iStock

A severe snowstorm can grind even the busiest cities to a halt, though colossal snowfall is the norm in many parts of Japan, including populous cities. That’s because the country is in the line of cold air coming from Siberia, which pushes across the Sea of Japan’s warmer waters to create the perfect conditions for heavy snowfall in certain areas from December through March. Snowstorms can dump exceptionally large loads of snow at higher elevations, which is why some regions, like the northern Aomori City, get more than 26 feet of snow each year. The city of Sapporo takes advantage of its 16 feet of snow by hosting an annual winter festival complete with towering snow and ice sculptures. And the coastal city of Toyama, nestled below the Hida Mountains (which get as much as 125 feet of snow annually), gets a hefty 12 feet each winter, which road crews plow into canyon-like walls along a stretch of highway called “Snow Canyon.”

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Milwaukee Popularized the Snow Plow

Snow removal vehicle, removing snow.
Credit: O n E studio/ Shutterstock

Long before cars, snowy roads were less of a hassle — mostly because they made travel easier. At a time when horse-drawn carriages were the main mode of getting around, travelers could easily swap the wheels on their carts for ski-like runners, which worked best when heavy snow was compacted onto streets. (In many regions, a “snow warden” was responsible for packing down fresh snow with a snow roller — a giant, weighted wheel.) But for people making their way by foot, trudging through a city’s snow-laded walkways was a tiresome ordeal. By the mid-1800s, several inventors had designed their own horse-drawn plows to clear pedestrian paths, and in 1862, Milwaukee became the first major city to test such a contraption. Considered a success, the snow plow concept spread through many of the Great Lakes’ snowiest cities, eventually paving the way for the modern motorized version, which would emerge in the 1920s as automobiles became popular.