Not all snow is created equal.
To the untrained eye, it may all appear about the same, but people who have worked in it all their lives or cultures that had lived in it for centuries, such as Eskimos and Norwegians, know the tremendous differences in the types of snow that fall from the heavens, and once on the ground, it goes through many transformations. Globally, snow has many names, and is recognized in many forms. Here’s a brief look at the almost endless variety of snow and its nomenclature.
Part of its variety has to do with its birth. At the heart of every snowflake is a speck of dust. When blown into a super-chilled cloud of water vapor, water molecules coalesce around the speck into a variety of crystalline formations. If the cloud is really cold, say 13 degrees below zero, the crystals develop into sharp-edged prisms. At 5 degrees, they unfold like lacy stars, and at 17 degrees they fold inward creating hollow, six-sided columns.
Some link up to form classic snowflakes, others are broken by wind into needle-like forms or smashed into flat plates or small balls, and all come tumbling down on a journey lasting anywhere from minutes to days. Once on the ground, it continues its metamorphic journey.
The lightest snow goes by many names — “champagne powder,” “cold smoke,” “white air,” “fluff” and “pow.” It is born in clouds of relatively low humidity at around 5 degrees, which creates what scientists call stellar crystals. If they fall without wind, which compacts snow, they stack up in delicate pillars that measure about 98 percent air. This 2-percent snow is actually not ideal for skiing, as is it is so light you cut right through it to the underlying hardpack. A denser, wetter snow, say 10 percent water, that turns super light as the storm progresses is the ideal combo, hailed by skiers as “ego powder” or “hero snow.”
Another form of dry snow is called graupel, a German word for granular. The tiny, Styrofoam-like balls are born when thick frost envelopes a snow crystal as it falls through a wet cloud. It can be fun to ski, as it provides an extra measure of slip and slide underfoot.
Wet and windblown snow has many forms. Sastrugi is a Russian term describing crescent-shaped drifts that look, and act, like sand dunes. If the wind compaction is great enough, it will support the weight of a skier and allow for tremendous tracking and carving ability. It is the same snow Eskimos call upsik, which they use to build their igloos, because it can be cut out of a bank with saws and easily stacked.
Wet snow also can produce those odd, doughnut-like pinwheels that bound down steep slopes. Called “cinnamon rolls,” they are launched usually from snow dropping off a pine bough onto the snow below, then roll downhill, picking up snow as they goes. This fresh snow is perfect for building snowmen and having snowball fights, as it binds together so well, versus older snow that has frozen and thawed numerous times, creating another skier favorite, “corn snow.” Old corn snow actually looks like corn kernels, and makes a terrific carving surface when slightly thawed. Get on corn snow too early in the day, before it has melted a bit and broken up into granules, and it is hellish ice. Wait too long and it turns to heavy slush.
Crusts and ices have their own language as well. Skare is a Norwegian term for the crust that forms when a warm spell that melts surface snow is followed by a freeze. If thick enough, it can be carefully skied, but often one breaks through, creating nightmarish conditions. When just a thin layer of ice is laid on the surface, you get firnspiegel, a German term for “glacier mirror.”
It produces incredibly beautiful optical effects at sunrise and sunset, creating a fire-like color off the snow. When walked or skied on, it produces the sound of a thousand tinkling, breaking plates.
Eastern skiers are all too familiar with boilerplate, which describes the “bullet-proof” ice that forms from a combination of wet snow and protracted, extreme cold. Early snowmaking efforts often produced a wet, large snow crystal, measuring 500 to 1,000 microns in diameter, which under the pressure of skiers quickly turned to ice. Today’s equipment and technicians produce a much smaller particle, around 100 microns, that resists the icing process.
“Hoar,” “frost” and “rime” form yet another class of snow. “Surface hoar” forms on cold, clear nights when atmospheric vapor condenses directly onto the surface snow, creating a fast, feature-like surface that explodes on contact. “Depth hoar” is formed when water vapor produced by snow lying next to the relatively warm ground migrates upward toward the colder snow and surface air.
This vapor refreezes into a solid without the intermediary step of being a liquid, a process called sublimation. It freezes into tiny, rounded or pyramid forms called “sugar snow.” Sugar snow resists bonding with its neighbor, and creates a very loose mass of snow notorious for producing avalanches. I once skied into a sugar snow “trap” and was almost swallowed up by it, as if I were in quicksand. The more I struggled, the deeper I sank. I had to lay my skis across the top of the hole and lift myself up and out.
There are many more terms for snow — “death cookies,” “frozen chicken heads,” “neve,” “harbor chop,” “dust on crust,” “mashed potatoes,” “chandeliers,” “diamonds in the sky,” “chalk and “cream cheese.” It points to snow’s endless forms and the almost magical properties of water on Earth, the source of all life.
With thanks to research done by writers Peter Shelton and Peter Stark, 1995.
Our regional conditions continue to improve, with a rare set of January storms that have been absent the past few years. Here are some highlights.
Ski Santa Fe has an 88-inch base, having picked up 27 inches over the past week, with most runs open — except some of the Big Rocks Chutes. On Saturday and Sunday, it hosts the 30th annual Tony Forrest Telemark Workshop. Taos has a 100-inch base, with 35 inches falling this week. It celebrates the opening of the Blake hotel on Saturday with a live band on the Plaza from noon to 3 p.m., an open house of the hotel from 3 to 6 p.m., beer specials and grilled foods on Rhoda’s Deck, s’mores, hot chocolate and cider on the Plaza from 2 to 4 p.m., the Taos Pueblo Dancers on the Plaza at 2:45 p.m. and fireworks at 6:30 p.m.
Pajarito is enjoying a 60-inch base, having seen 47 inches fall this week. Its Townsight Chair is functioning, providing some of the best tree skiing on the mountain. Ski Apache has a 61-inch base, its best in years, with all runs and lifts open.