8 surprising things about snow
In 1611, Kepler published the first treatise on snow. More precisely, the shape of snowflakes. Since then, many others have taken an interest in this subject. Today, we know a little more about what lies behind this white enchantment.
What if the snow was not white?
Snow is nothing but ice water. And ice water, as everyone knows, is not white. It is translucent. Yet snowflakes appear white to us. The snow is white because the light reflects off the different sides of the snowflakes, scattering all the colours of the spectrum in many directions.
But did you know that this it can sometimes take on other colours? Red, for example. A colouring due to an alga, Chlamydomonas nivalis. It grows in the cold and contains a carotenoid pigment which makes snow red.
No size limit for flakes
The largest snowflake ever observed was some 38 centimetres in diameter. That sounds incredible yet the record was registered in the Guinness World Records Book on 28 January 1887.
And according to scientists, there is nothing to stop a snowflake from growing like that. Perhaps such large ones are formed regularly and are either not observed or broken up by the wind before they reach us.
Hundreds of words
The Inuit are said to have 50 words for snow in their vocabulary. But in this game, it turns out that the Scots could well beat them. The University of Glasgow claims to have identified more than 400 terms related to snow. A "skelf" refers to a large flake, "spitters" to small drops of snow and "unbrak" to the beginning of the thaw.
Snow elsewhere than on Earth
Researchers believe that snowstormes can happen elsewhere than on Earth. On the planet Mars, for example. It could fall there in violent storms in the form of fine ice particles that bear little relation to the soft flakes we know on our planet. So there is no big, white cover in prospect, only a kind of very fine and irregular frost.
Monkeys and snow
Do you like playing in the snow? You are not alone. Japanese macaques, also known as "snow monkeys", have been observed making and playing with snowballs. The young macaques seem to enjoy stealing the snowballs from each other and fighting over them.
No need for too much snow
There is a legend that if you spend too much time on the slopes, you may suffer from piblokto or 'Arctic hysteria'. This disorder is said to affect Inuit living in the Arctic Circle. Symptoms include meaningless verbal repetition or irrational or dangerous actions, followed by amnesia about the event.
The toxicity of vitamin A - which is very common in the local diet - is thought to be one of the causes of this disorder. But in recent years, researchers have questioned whether the condition actually exists.
Snow affects sound
The freshly fallen snow absorbs the sound waves creating a calm and peaceful atmosphere after a snowstorm. But if it melts and then freezes again, the ice that forms can reflect the sound waves, making the sound clearer and more transparent.
It should also be noted that while several factors can trigger an avalanche, noise is not one of them. A snowstorm, an increase in wind speed, or even the overzealous step of a skier can trigger a sudden and deadly avalanche. But "you can shout as loud as you like without any risk," says the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research.
Snow is an excellent insulator since it is 90-95% trapped air. These insulating properties are why many animals burrow into the snow in winter to hibernate. It is also why igloos, which are heated by body heat alone, can reach a much warmer temperature than outside.
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