Snow science: What is snow?

With winter in full swing, there are numerous opportunities to explore science through outdoor snow experiments and observations.

Snow is a great way to take science outside and learn more about the world around us.
Snow is a great way to take science outside and learn more about the world around us.

For most of Michigan, the first (or perhaps second, third or fourth) snowfall of the season has 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 4-H Youth Development program will explore winter science questions and activities regarding snow. To kick things off, we’ll explore exactly what snow is.

Snow, by a simple definition, is a group of loosely connected ice crystals; ice is the solid form of water. It is more than just frozen rain, which would be called sleet, because water vapor turns directly into ice, totally skipping the liquid phase. Numerous factors influence snow production, including pollution in the air, wind speed, humidity and altitude. Snowflakes take on many different shapes depending on how the ice crystals come together as they fall from clouds through the atmosphere.

There are different words to describe the types of snowfall we may experience, including blizzard, snowburst, snowstorm, drifting snow, snow flurry, snow squall and blowing snow. Once it is on the ground, there are different ways to describe snow cover, such as seasonal snow, powder snow, new snow, névé, firn, old snow and perennial snow. Snow can also create all kinds of wonderful formations like cornice, snow bridge, megadunes, crust, penitents, sastrugi, snow roller, ripple marks, snow barchan, and sun cups.

While snow is part of our daily lives for the next several months, take time to turn it into a learning experience for youth. All it takes is a little time to think about questions to ask as they explore their world or help them find answers to questions they develop on their own. Here are few sample questions to ask during or after a snow fall:

  • If you had to describe snow, how would you do it?
  • What is snow made of?
  • What state of matter is snow—solid, liquid or gas? How do you know? Could snow exist in other forms?
  • Where else besides Michigan would you find snow in the U.S.? In the world? Does it snow on other planets?
  • Are there different kinds of snow?
  • How can you use your senses to learn about snow?
  • What snow is best for making snowballs or building snowpeople?
  • Is all snow the same?

For more information about snow, snow science and snow activities 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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