Each year, it’s estimated that an astounding 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 snowflakes fall toward the earth. That’s one septillion, which is equivalent to one trillion trillion.
You’ll probably find different types of snow between one winter weather event and the next. The moisture content, flake size, and weather conditions affect what you get at the ground. Bundle up and let’s check them out.
Basic Snow Types
Each type of snow is produced by specific temperature and moisture conditions.
This is a very moist and dense snow that forms when cloud temperatures are right around freezing. Flakes collide and stick together, so you’ll have a main snowflake in the middle and other crystals attaching themselves to it, making the whole flake bigger. Wet snow gives you gorgeous, huge white flakes. An inch per hour of accumulation is common with heavy, wet snow.
Colder, drier air makes a different type of snow since there’s less moisture available for each crystal to grow. A powdery snow will be less likely to clump together, and the flakes will be smaller.
Snow can be classified according to how poor the visibility is while it's snowing. Light snow is defined as having a horizontal visibility of three-quarters of a mile or more, and it takes several hours of light snow to get one inch on the ground.
Some of the most epic blizzards take place in the early spring when there’s lots of moisture in the air. Two famous examples of extreme spring snows are the March 1993 blizzard and the early February snowstorm of 2010. Spring snows can create floods as warming temperatures cause rapid melting after the storm.
Small snow crystals are sometimes called snow pellets, also known as graupel. Liquid water droplets stick to the tiny pellets and grow into what looks like sleet. You can tell the difference between sleet and graupel because each snow pellet inside of the graupel will have a white center colored by the core snow crystal, and sleet will not. Graupel is not hail — hail is formed by a completely different process inside of a thunderstorm.
Snow and Outdoor Activities
Each type of snow offers its own chance to have some winter recreation, so strap on your boots, get your gloves on, and wrap yourself with your thick winter coat. Some snow activities are very inexpensive but super fun.
Slippin’ and Slidin’ in Wet or Powdery Snow
Wet snow may compact into a layer of ice, allowing you to really zoom down hills on an inexpensive snow saucer. Powdery snow won’t give you quite the speed, but you’ll have more control. Have a race with family and friends on a snow saucer, cardboard box, or large plastic lid from a storage container (though beware that boxes and lids are not as easy to control since they don’t have handles). It’s a blast!
Snowmobiling in Powdery Snow
You can pilot a snowmobile through either wet or powdery snow. Strap in for safety and hit the throttle for thrills. Powdery snow is best if you’re going the mechanized route since you’ll have more control to turn or stop quickly when a log shows up or a squirrel jumps in your path. Heavy snow will make the going more on the icy side, but if you’re on a trail, it’s not a problem.
Safety tip: Avoid crossing frozen lakes; you never know where a weak pocket lurks beneath the surface.
Wet Snow is Great for Snowmen, Not for Snowballs
Wet snow is the best for snowman construction because it forms into ice that holds its shape. On the other hand, ice balls are a painful choice for snowball ammunition. A medium-powder snow offers a better choice.
Skiers Like the Powder
Powdery snow works best for your downhill action, as the snow doesn’t stick to the skis, and it offers the best traction for sharp maneuvers. Skiing conditions are usually best within a few days of fresh snow, whereas spring snow or wet snow can lead to icy and dangerous conditions on the slopes. As skiers know, slope conditions change with each type of snow:
- Cement snow: A heavy, wet powder that offers a good skiing surface, but if you sink into it, you’ll find out why it has this name!
- Champagne snow: We’re talking high-end Cadillac-quality skiing. It’s a dry snow that requires very cold air to form. Picture the kind of snow you see in movies where the skier throws up a huge cloud of white powder.
- Corn snow: The surface looks like corn kernels stuck together, it has a velvety texture from partial melting, and is in transition between being too icy and too soft.
- Popcorn snow: Another term for graupel, it’s definitely not a ski-friendly surface.
- Yellow snow: If you have to ask, perhaps you shouldn’t go skiing.
Loving That Spring Snow for Fun Forts
Building a snow fort offers great potential for kids to have days of fun. Heavy spring snowfall of 6 inches or more makes some of the best conditions for young snow architects to pile it high and carve out an icy clubhouse. Just be sure to wait a few days after the snowfall to allow the snow to pack down a little bit — not only will this make it easier to build your fort, but it will also offer much safer conditions once inside, as fresh powder is less structurally sound.
Go for It
There are a lot of ways to have fun in the snow, from an old-fashioned snowball fight to high-altitude swerving on a ski slope. Of course, always use smart safety practices and stay warm.
What’s your favorite type of snow to ski or sled in? Any snow nightmares to share? Comment your snow stories in the comments below!
Steve LaNore is a Certified Broadcast Meteorologist with more than 30 years forecasting and technical experience. He has provided meteorological consulting for everything from insurance adjusters to court cases and is a nine-time award winning author and broadcaster. LaNore has authored two books available on Amazon. He resides in north Texas near beautiful Lake Texoma.