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How is snow made? – Tenley, age 7, Rockford, Michigan

The considered snow can conjure up pictures of powdery slopes, days out of faculty or hours of shoveling. For thousands and thousands of individuals, it’s an inevitable a part of life – however chances are you’ll hardly ever cease to consider what made the snow.

As a professor of atmospheric and planetary sciences, I’ve studied how ice crystals floating within the sky change into the snow that coats the bottom.

All of it begins within the clouds.

Clouds kind when air close to the Earth’s floor rises. This occurs when daylight warms the bottom and the air closest to it, identical to the Solar can heat your face on a chilly winter day.

As the marginally hotter air rises, it cools – and the water vapor in that rising air condenses to kind liquid water or water ice. From that, a cloud is born.


You want simply two issues for snow to kind.

Limitless pathways

When temperatures are effectively under freezing on the bottom, the clouds are primarily made from water within the type of ice. Beneath 32 levels Fahrenheit – that’s zero levels Celsius – the frozen water molecules organize themselves right into a hexagonal, or six-sided, crystalline form. As ice crystals develop and clump collectively, they change into too heavy to remain aloft. With the assistance of gravity, they start to fall again down by and ultimately out of the cloud.

What these ice crystals seem like as soon as they attain land will depend on the temperature and humidity of the environment. Because the humidity – or the quantity of water vapor within the cloud – will increase, a few of the ice crystals will develop intricate arms at their six corners. That branching course of creates what we consider because the characteristic shapes of snowflakes.

No two ice crystals take the identical path by a cloud. As an alternative, each ice crystal experiences totally different temperatures and humidities because it travels by the cloud, whether or not going up or down. The ever-changing circumstances, mixed with the infinite variety of paths the crystals may take, end in a singular development historical past and crystalline form for every snowflake. This is the reason you’ve seemingly heard the saying, “No two snowflakes are exactly alike.”

Many occasions, these variations are seen to the bare eye; typically a microscope is required to inform them aside. Both means, scientists who examine clouds and snow can study a snowflake and finally perceive the trail it took by the cloud to land in your hand.

Snow crystals attached to a window.

It takes roughly one hour for a snowflake to succeed in the bottom.
LiLi/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Liquid water as glue

When snow falls from the sky, you don’t normally see particular person ice crystals, however slightly clumps of crystals stuck together. A method ice crystals combination is thru what’s referred to as mechanical interlocking. When ice crystals stumble upon one another, crystals with intricate branches and arms intertwine and follow others.

This mechanism is the principle sticking course of in cooler, drier circumstances – what individuals name a “dry snow.” The result’s a snow good for snowboarding, and simply picked up by the wind, however that received’t maintain collectively when shaped right into a snowball.

The second method to stick ice crystals collectively is to heat them up a bit. When ice crystals fall by a area of cloud or environment the place the temperature is barely above freezing, the sides of the crystals begin to soften. Only a tiny little bit of liquid water permits ice crystals that stumble upon one another to stay collectively very effectively, virtually like glue.

The end result? Massive clumps of ice crystals falling from the sky, what we name a “wet snow” – lower than perfect for hitting the slopes however good for constructing a snowman.

Snow shaped in clouds sometimes reaches the bottom solely in winter. However virtually all clouds, regardless of the time of yr or location, contain some ice. That is true even for clouds in heat tropical areas, as a result of the environment above us is way colder and might attain temperatures under freezing even on the warmest of days. Actually, scientists who examine climate found that clouds containing ice produce extra rain than people who don’t comprise any ice in any respect.

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