Snow science: Silent snow

What do you hear as snow falls? This winter phenomenon is the perfect opportunity to explore the science of sound.

For most of Michigan, the first and subsequent snowfalls of the season have changed the scenery of late fall into a glistening landscape waiting to be explored. As this change in the season happens, a new world of outdoor observation and exploration opens up for youth to ask questions and discover answers about their world. This new series from Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H will explore winter science questions and activities regarding snow. The second exploration of winter science is how snow sounds.

During the next snowfall or just after it has finished, take some time to use your sense of hearing to explore the world. Here are a few sample questions to ask:

  • What do you hear while snow is falling?
  • What do you hear after there is a blanket of snow on the ground?
  • How do these sounds differ from other forms of precipitation like rain, sleet, hail or freezing rain?
  • Why do you think there are these differences?

After taking some time to use observation skills with the snow, make notes about the audio data you collected outside. Construct an explanation of what you heard, and finally talk about the results with others to see what they learned. A few follow-up questions might be:

  • Did you and others notice the same things? What were they?
  • Did you notice something different? What were they?
  • If different things were noticed, why might that be the case?

Now that you have completed your observations, data recording and talking about what you noticed, keep reading to learn more about snow and acoustics!

What you probably noticed during or after a fresh snowfall is how quiet the world seems. Why does this happen? It’s because of the physical properties of snowflakes. In “Snow science: What is snow?,” we learn that snowflakes are solids. As a solid, this form of precipitation floats to the ground much slower than other forms of precipitation, such as rain. Rain falls faster and has a sound upon impact with the ground or another surface, making it a much louder form of precipitation.

Unlike rain, snowflakes have open space in their six-sided crystalline structure. This open space acts as a sound buffer, helping to reduce noise. Sound travels in waves and needs to vibrate the molecules in the solids, liquids or gasses to be transmitted. Sounds also travel faster in warmer conditions, so air temperature helps to slow down or speed up the waves, changing what is heard. If there are objects in the way, sound can be dampened, reducing what is heard. Snowflakes do just that! As snow begins to melt and change shape, sounds change yet again.

When snow melts, the space in between each crystal is reduced as well as the buffering property, and the silence of a fresh snow goes away. In fact, as snow turns into ice, it can actually make sounds louder because it will reflect sound waves instead of absorbing them.

For more information about sound, snow, snow science and snow activates for youth, check out these websites:

Asking questions like those mentioned above about something we see a lot, but may not know a lot about, is a great way to explore science around us in our everyday lives. Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program help to create a community excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). 4-H STEM programming seeks to increase science literacy, introducing youth to the experiential learning process that helps them to build problem-solving, critical-thinking and decision-making skills. Youth who participate in 4-H STEM content are better equipped with critical life skills necessary for future success. To learn more about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth in STEM literacy programs, read our 2015 Impact Report: “Building Science Literacy and Future STEM Professionals.”

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