The many faces of snow

Praying monks, cold smoke, hoarfrost and rime.

 

Few people – at least few grownups – really enjoy snow. I live in Colorado where we're drowning in it day after day, and though it's great for the high mountain watersheds, it's not so fun for daily life. You have to clear it from windshields and crawl around in it chaining up tires.

Supposedly, the Inuit have hundreds of words for snow. For example, upsik is igloo-building snow, and they probably have words for snowball-making snow or snow that crunches, making it hard to sneak up on a seal.

There are a few warped humans who like to dress up cute to play in the snow but I am sure they are a minority. All that said, though, there are moments when snow can be astonishingly beautiful. I am talking about when you look out the window and see a blanket of undisturbed snow covering the yard and streets. The pleasure from that is that you are inside and the snow is out there.

Snow isn't magic. Somewhere high in the sky a speck of dust or a bacteria bungles into a mass of super-cooled air and three water molecules grab it, forming a ring of six atoms. More water joins that, producing a honeycomb ice crystal. When the temperature hits minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit, the crystals become razor-sharp prisms. At 5 degrees Fahrenheit, they become frilly stars, and at 17 degrees they fold up, making hollow six-sided columns. Prisms, stars, columns along with plates, sinters and needles tumble around and become snow. It's science.

Earlier this year, a concatenation of humidity, temperature and absolutely still air – rare in the West – created a mixture of hoarfrost and rime that coated every blade of grass and the twigs and branches on the trees to make a delicate crystalline wonderland. It was as if the world were made of glass. The moment was brief as tears; a few heartbeats later, the sun broke through and the crystal shield disappeared as quickly as a coin in a magician's hand. That was magic.

Another time, years ago, every branch and small trunk on the trees featured white spikes or icy thorns. They had formed on the lee side of the branches opposite where the wind was hitting. Snow magic.

What about cold smoke? Sometimes it's called white air or champagne snow, more common in the West than in the soggy East. It is the lightest and fluffiest snow on earth. It occurs at about 5 degrees Fahrenheit, which permits stellar crystals to form but lacks the humidity to coat the flakes with frost. When the wind blows, it floats in the air, and sunshine makes the blue sky above sparkle like a blanket of flashing diamonds. It feels as though you're inside one of those glass balls you shake to make it "snow." More snow magic.

I was in the high country of Indian Peaks Wilderness when I saw what's called "praying monks." It is more common in the Andes and was called nieve penitente or penitent snow by early Spanish explorers. Praying monks are formed after intense, high-country sunlight melts deep pits in the snow pack, leaving spikey towers, some 10-foot high, standing in the snow. The tall drooping snow cones look like a congregation of hooded monks at prayer.

When I stood among some of these monks, the only sound was the shush of a high wind sounding like the muffled sound of prayer, and the hair on the back of my neck rose. It was strange and beautiful.

There's another phenomenon I've never seen that happens in the Alps after a thin layer of clear ice covers the snowpack. At sunrise or sunset a red sky is reflected back from the ice to seemingly set the mountain on fire. It's called Firnspiegel, or glacier mirror, and, when you walk on it, it sounds as though you are stepping on fine china.

Then there's sugar snow, sometimes called depth hoar, which causes many dangerous avalanches. It occurs deep in the snowpack when water molecules go from warmer layers to colder layers and reform into ribbed crystals. The water lands on the hoar crystal itself, and there are no bonds between the crystals to link up the grains of snow. You can pour the snow from hand to hand like sugar from a bowl. Weird.

The Inuit probably have words covering all the regular stuff and the magic part of snow, too. Today, the news says it's going to keep snowing. I doubt that it will be magical, just wet and cold, and I'll need to be out there shoveling – again.

Rob Pudim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He writes and draws editorial cartoons in Colorado.

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