Friday, April 10, 2020

FALLING SNAIL – An Ode to Corn Snow

It’s widely claimed—and as widely debunked—that the Inuit have a hundred or more words for snow. While it’s true many Inuit terms are long composites including numerous descriptors, I don’t figure those count as words any more than the English “heavy, drifting snow that fell in a narrow band across the state.”

In fact there are only a few Inuit words for snow, including
aput for snow on the ground and qana for falling snow. So no surprise that my search for the Inuit term for “granular snow caused by repeated thawing and refreezing of flakes in the atmosphere” came up short. So the English “corn snow”—actually quite a good, concise descriptor—will serve quite nicely.

                                                         ~ // ~ // ~

A squall of corn snow, that late-season holdover of winter, makes me smile today.

Halfway between snow and hail—let's call it snail—corn snow forms during convective storms and disturbances, whose updrafts cause snow to repeatedly thaw and refreeze. It tends to happen in mid-April or even early May. That’s when fluffy snow flakes might melt during their slow drift through the above-freezing air, maybe before we even see them.

But corn snow’s hardy little pellets plummet to earth nearly intact. Then, to the delight of anyone in tune with such minutiae, instead of settling softly onto the sidewalk like so many fluffy feathers…they bounce.

It’s all because corn snow barely qualifies as snow and doesn’t quite meet the definition of hail. For, though it does derive from snow flakes, once it’s been through the atmospheric wringer, it’s no longer crystalline.

And it’s not really solid ice either. A hail stone has the heft, the clear-to-translucent shine of ice, but a corn snow pellet, since it still has air in it, is lighter and nearly opaque like whipped egg whites.

The shape and mass that allows the granules to survive “re-entry” are the same qualities that make them drop straight down. Less chance one will blow into your eye.
                    Theoretically, skiing on corn snow
             should be quite amazing.

And corn snow is the only kind that doesn’t melt when it lands on a warm jacket or hat or skin. Nope, it just bounces off, with all the satisfying pit-pat of raindrops but without the wet.

Theoretically, skiing on corn snow should be quite amazing, slickened by both a physical transformation, melting under pressure, and what’s called an extensive physical property, roundness.

So, in addition to the thin film of melt-water that the vehicles of most winter sports glide on, you’ve also got all those tiny ball bearings rolling under your skis. Should be slick, right? (Maybe not, since skiers call it “poor man’s powder.”)

Have you got any favorite corn snow stories or observations? We’d love to hear them!


jean said...

I am wondering if I have ever seen corn snow, Jeff. Humm, maybe I am too far south :)
We are in the middle of a beautiful spring here (no snow of any kind for most of the winter). Maybe I will experience some corn snow next winter :)

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