Thursday, January 23, 2014

Wet vs dry snow

I'll be posting over the next week about some of the snow/ice phenomena that I observed today while walking around Rock Point. But before I go into that, I wanted to say a bit about what I've been thinking about since last week's snow fall. The first snow fall (on the 16th) fell during the warmer spell. You may have noticed giant snowflakes, which were actually just conglomerates falling together. My suspicion was that the white orbs in the center of each flake (seen in the photo below) are melted snowflakes that fused together with flakes that hadn't yet melted as well as had begun again the process of snowflake formation.

So what happens to snow once it falls? After snow falls on the ground it can either remain unchanged, which is never permanent, or it undergoes metamorphosis. Metamorphosis can happen in a few ways:

  1. constructive: like the formation of depth hoar - aka sugar snow, which forms the ball bearings on which avalanches often form. This occurs when there's a sharp contrast or gradient in temperature from the surface of the snow pack to the bottom. Temperature gradient creates a gradient in vapor pressure and water gets passed from warmer areas (high vapor pressure), near the ground, to colder areas (lower vapor pressure), near the surface
  2. destructive: (the "melting" of a snowflake to a little knobby snowball on slightly reminescent of the flakes original shape). Water vapor is released from the points of a snow flakes and is passed to the pits of the flake (near the base). This is a very complex process and I suggest Jim Halfpenny's Winter: An Ecological Handbook
  3. firnificationmelt-freeze temperature swings or applying pressure (like stepping on snow or another snow storm putting weight on top of older snow) can fuse snow crystals together. The first process can create dangerously slick crusts on the surface of the snowpack, which coincidentally protects small tunneling mammals underneath; the second force is what gives quinzhees their solid, insulating structure.
  4. wind: wind can break snow flakes under mechanical force into smaller pieces. 

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