Snow is a form of precipitation in the form of crystallized ice that predominantly falls in winter; in Alaska, this means every month aside from July, and even then…
The process of actively precipitating snow is called “snowfall” or “@*!%, not again, I just shoveled this morning!”
Snowfall tends to form in low-pressure systems known as “extra-tropical cyclones,” which makes sense, seeing as how a long season of continuous snowfall makes you want to take a “tropical” vacation “extra” bad, and down a whole bunch of “cyclones” (vodka, Grand Marnier, grapefruit juice and cranberry juice with lemonade floated on top).
Contrary to the popular saying, Native Alaskans do not have 13 words for snow. However, certain other Alaskan groups (e.g. REI members, teenagers, anyone wearing a loud plaid parka with visible boxer shorts) have at least that many, probably more, including: “pow,” “sickie pow,” “tonar pow” and “tonar sickie pow.” Then you’ve got all the food ones: “corn,” “mashed potatoes,” “death cookies,” “fresh milk,” and so on. That’s the kind of jargon that emerges in a subculture with a tendency to get the munchies.
While the term “snow storm” refers to any heavy snowfall, a “blizzard” involves snow and wind. A “Blizzard” involves your choice of candy, cookie and/or sundae topping mix-ins.
When snow stays on the ground without melting, its density causes it to create snowpack. If snowpack stays on the ground for a series of years uninterrupted, the snowpack develops into a mass of ice called a glacier. If the glacier stays on the ground for a series of years uninterrupted, they build a visitor’s center and bus tourists to it.
The term “snow” can also be used to refer to cocaine — most often in 1980s cop movies — as well as Canadian reggae singer Snow, best known for his 1992 single “Informer.” Whatever happened to that guy? Must’ve joined the Witness Protection Program. You know, after all the informing he did.
Forms and Types
Snow crystals form when tiny super-cooled cloud droplets freeze. Snow flakes form when snow crystals grow and stick together. “Sno Balls” form when cream-filled chocolate cakes are covered in marshmallow frosting and pink coconut shreds.
A snowflake consists of roughly 1,019 water molecules, coincidentally the same number of drive-through espresso stands in the greater Anchorage area.
Scientists classify snow according to flake shape, accumulation rate and the way snowfall collects. Once on the ground, snow can be categorized as “powdery” when fluffy, “granular” when it enters the freeze/thaw cycle and eventually “ice,” once packed into a dense drift. All stages are excellent at concealing garbage and dog turds, a big part of what makes Alaska so beautiful in winter.
In mountainous areas, such as downtown Juneau, external stresses on the snow pack can cause a sudden, drastic flow of snow down a slope. This is known as an “avalanche.” The “Avalanche” was also the name of the finishing move employed by hairless, black unitard-clad, 500-lb. WWF star King Kong Bundy. While certain precautions can be taken to forestall natural avalanches — machine grooming, snow fences, explosives — nothing could be done to stop a King Kong Bundy avalanche. If he was going to avalanche you, he was going to avalanche you. Just ask Hillbilly Jim.
Snow that falls in the form of a ball rather than a flake is called “graupel” or “soft hail” (although, be warned, it’s a little touchy about its turgidity, so you should probably go with “graupel,” at least to its face).
Snow that falls in Southeast Alaska is known as “switching over to rain.”
Effects on Human Society
Substantial snowfall — or, in the Lower 48, one single flake — can disrupt public infrastructure and slow human activity (although not in Alaska, where people seem to drive even faster when it snows, risk of rolling into the ditch be damned).
In particular, snow can cause extremely dangerous driving conditions, especially if you’re rocking a Prius without studs on it.
Of course, snow also provides opportunities for recreational winter sports such as snowshoeing, skiing, snowboarding and, for toddlers, gross-brown-slush-from-under-the-car eating.
Especially popular in Alaska, snowmobiling, where snowmobiles are known as “snowmachines” or “sleds” (especially when “necks” are involved). “Snowmachine” can also refer to a cocktail (beer mixed with gasoline, sometimes a little whisky floated on top).
Fresh snow reflects at least 90 percent of ultra-violet radiation, which on sunny days following new snowfall, can cause an eye condition known as “snow blindness.” Sunny days following new snow can also lead to tailgating in ski resort and trail head parking lots, which can cause an eye condition known as “beer goggles.”
Believe it or not, the record for snowfall in a single season does not belong to any location in Alaska, but Mount Baker in Washington State, which, during 1998-99 received 1,140 inches.
However, the real snowiest place on earth likely does exist in Alaska, but in areas too remote for weather stations to measure. Perhaps the state should consider building an Ice Road to Nowhere.
Possible candidates include Thompson Pass outside Valdez, Mount Fairweather and somewhere on the Juneau Ice Field, although you’d think they’d be able to figure out logistics for taking official records on the Juneau Ice Field, considering they’ve got no problem helicoptering cruisers up there go to dog-sledding.
The snowiest city in Alaska is Valdez. Or, wherever you’re trying to fly into on any given day between November and April.
In motion picture production, engineers simulate the sound of walking through snow using corn starch, salt and/or cat litter. Coincidentally, these are also three of the 11 secret herbs and spices in Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Scientists have observed a variation of snow that falls on Venus, although it’s composed of metallic compounds and occurs at significantly higher temperatures.
That’s right: on Venus, it snows hot metal.
Sort of puts even the harshest Alaskan winter in perspective.
• “Slack Tide” appears every other Sunday in Neighbors. Read more of Geoff Kirsch’s work at www.geoffkirsch.com.