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Sydnee Sutton, 9, catches snowflakes on her tongue during a snowfall in College Place, Wash., Feb. 22, 2007. (Jeff Horner/Associated Press)

In Depth

Forces of nature

Little-known facts about snow

Jan. 3, 2008

The largest snowflake on record measured 38 centimetres in diameter, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. It allegedly fell in 1887 at Fort Keogh, Montana. Ranch owner Matt Coleman took the measurement, and described the snowflakes as being "larger than milk pans." For their part, international weather stations do not measure snowflake dimensions.

Snow is white because visible sunlight is white. The crystals in a snowflake reflect white light off each other and what little light that is absorbed gives snow its white appearance.

It is never too cold to snow since moisture can exist in the air even at the lowest temperatures. However, most snowfalls occur when the air is -9 C or warmer, since air can hold more water vapour during warmer temperatures.

Snow is edible , at least in theory. Snow that falls in large urban centres may contain pollutants that should not be ingested, especially when these are present in high concentrations.

Snow makes things quieter because the air pockets in fresh snow absorb and trap sound waves. But ambient noise returns when surface snow hardens and begins to reflect more sound. In places where there is really hard snow, the icy surface will actually cause noise to travel farther.

Snow crunches when you step on it because snow is composed of ice grains surrounding tiny air pockets. Each layer of snow is largely of empty space. When you take a step on the surface, you are compressing layers and causing ice grains to compress. The colder the temperature, the louder the crunch because the ice grains are harder and less likely to melt during compression.

Icicles are more common on the south side of buildings because that exposure tends to receive more daytime sun. Snow is more likely to melt on the south side of a building. It then re-freezes during the night to form icicles.

Snow water refers to the amount of water that results from melted snow and varies with the type of snowfall and how dense the snow pack is. This runoff can flood storm drains and other low-lying areas and is carefully measured every year because of its importance to local agriculture. According to Natural Resources Canada, new snowfall typically has a density of around 100 kilograms per cubic metre but this can increase two or even three-fold as other snow is packed on top.

Watermelon snow is snow with algae growing on it. This particular algae thrives in cold water and has a reddish pigment that shows up especially when the snow is walked upon and compressed. It is even said to emit a subtle watermelon scent and is commonly found in alpine meadows in the Canadian Rockies.

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MORE ON WINTER WEATHER

Environment Canada: Wind chill and the risk of frostbite

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