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As I sit here watching the Weather Channel, and the latest named winter storm makes the news, I wonder when snow became a bad, four-letter word? It’s described in negative terms at our workplaces, complained about with our neighbors, and scrutinized by the media when an inch or more is forecasted! We track them from the Rockies to the Atlantic on our smartphones, run out and prepare ourselves by buying bags of salt, expensive snow blowers and the latest shovels that have been engineered to “reduce back injury.” We have fleets of large Tonka-like trucks with snowplows as wide as two lane highways on standby, patiently waiting to pre-treat our roadways with brine. The grocery stores have become the social meeting places for us, just before the “big” winter blast drops 3-5 inches of the white, fluffy stuff on us! Milk, bread and eggs-really? Sounds like we’re throwing a breakfast party with the main course being French toast! And what about those named winter storms? When did this start, and what purpose does it actually serve?
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that snow can cause major problems for our transportation infrastructure and some serious safety concerns. I am very appreciative of all those folks who work long hours in making our roadways safe for travel, but what I don’t understand is why people get so angry at this beautiful white, frozen precipitation. Snow is just snow. When conditions are right, it just falls when and where it wants to. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t target accumulating more on my driveway, or route to work, than it does other people’s areas. So how does snow happen? What is the actual science behind this winter weather that brings us so much angst?
Two main ingredients in our atmosphere make up the formation of snow-water and cold temperatures, and they have to come together in just the right mixture and at the exact time to create snow. Snow starts as water vapor far above our heads that condenses into tiny droplets. As the droplets get bigger they stick together. Cold air then freezes the water droplets into small, ice crystals. Each ice crystal, better known as a snowflake, has its own shape, with different stems or spikes sticking out from all sides. If there’s a lot of water (moisture) in the air, the ice crystal will continue to collect more water vapor, get bigger and heavier and eventually fall from the sky. On its way down it may pass through layers of warm or cold air, which can cause it to melt then freeze, and so on. If it melts too much and re-freezes closer to earth’s surface, we get sleet instead of snow. Yuk! If it’s winter, give me snow, not sleet or freezing rain, just snow......and yes, “when I was a kid” it definitely seemed like we had more snow each winter. Back then, snow was a good, four-letter word!
In my early years it would snow as early as Thanksgiving, always be white for Christmas, and continually have snow on the ground until March, sometimes even into April. As kids growing up in northern Pennsylvania we looked forward to snow, no, we actually craved it! I know it was a different time and we didn’t have much of the technology (that keeps us inside) and other safety concerns that we do today, but snow was fun and snow was magical. We took a few of the problems that came from snowfalls, with the many smiles, snowball battles, snow forts and snow angels that snow brought us, including the famous “snow days.”
Kids, school and snow days were synonymous with each other. I can almost remember every snow day we had in elementary school, especially since we didn’t really get too many. No, unlike my dad, we did not have to walk 2-3 miles every day in two feet of snow, uphill (both ways) for four months a year. Maybe our bus drivers with their heavy duty chains were better drivers, who knows, but more likely school districts were not as fearful about all the legal concerns they have today. Whatever the reason, it would take a good bit of snow to call off school. Interesting how my mom would sometimes have difficulty getting my brothers, sister and I up for school on most days, but when the possibility of a snow day was coming, we would pop up early just to see if our school district was named on our local radio station. But snow isn’t just for school kids.
Snow is a very important part of Earth’s climate, and is vulnerable to global warming. Many cultures rely on snow and ice as part of their way of life, and their sustainability. In addition, millions of people (knowingly or unknowingly) depend on the water that runs off from snow and glaciers. This snowmelt fills rivers that support drinking water supplies, industries such as agriculture, hydroelectric power and recreation, and provides the components for a healthy ecosystem.
Snow happens. I like that. I live in area that is blessed with the season of winter, including snow, and I hope it continues. When the snowflakes begin to fall, I promise I’ll try not to talk about the white stuff in a discouraging way. S-N-O-W should be a good, four-letter word.