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Snowy Science for Winter

This article first appeared in the 1/3/20 edition of the Davis Enterprise

Snowy Science for Winter

Snowflake. Photo taken by Aaron Burden.

Snowy Science for Winter


By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise


We may not see snow very often here in the Central Valley of California, but it is a part of daily winter life in many other places in the world.  How does this fluffy substance form and how do scientists study it?


Snow begins as water vapor in a cloud, much like rain does.  As the cloud reaches higher altitudes, or occurs in higher latitudes, or both, the vapor will begin to freeze and for ice crystals.  These crystals form a six-sided, or hexagonal, shape and collide with other crystals to form the large, fluffy snowflakes we can see falling from the sky.  Even as they fall, the ground needs to be a certain temperature for it to stick.  If the ground is too warm, the snow will simply melt as soon as it lands, so a ground temperature around freezing helps the snow to accumulate.


Even though snow is formed in cold temperatures it has an ability to trap air and reflect sunlight.  Hibernating animals sometimes burrow under the snow for their seasonal snooze.  Because snow crystals pack themselves so tightly on the ground, they trap air and heat which can make the space below warmer.  This also helps keep soil warm during winter months, which help protect the insects and other organisms that live there safe and alive for when the temperature warms up.  Even people have utilized snow’s ability to trap heat.  Indigenous peoples of the high latitudes pack snow into blocks to build igloos or other structures, which with a fire could make the interior of the building up to tens of degrees warmer than the outside air.  Trapped air between snowflakes can also affect sound.  When snow is falling, sound waves get trapped between the snow making an area seem quieter.


Scientists study snow in a variety of ways.  Meteorologists study clouds, temperature, and precipitations and can predict where snow may fall and how much.  When snow falls it creates different layers, just like soil.  Scientists can study these layers which help them to predict and prevent avalanches in the mountains.


Snow not only is nice to look at and play in but can sometimes affect an area for the rest of the year.  Many places depend on mountain snowpack for water during the rest of the year.  If it melts too quickly, the area could experience sudden flooding, followed by drought.  A slow, gradual melt is best for providing water for rivers and farmland.  Even though snow is best known for being cold it can trap the heat for animals and people to use and helps our plants grow in the spring and summer.






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  • Check out Explorit’s Light & Sound Exhibit!  We are open to the public on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 1-5pm.  Admission is only $5 per person, free for Members, teachers with school ID, ASTC, and ages 2 and under.


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