Our ongoing snowstorms of February have resulted in more school and road closures than Tehachapi has seen in years. Snowy scenery has gone from a fading memory to a regular sight around here.
Although snow is composed of just ice crystals, and so is simply water in another form, snow is surprisingly diverse and complex. In fact, we've had several different types of snow fall over the past three weeks.
Our recent largest snowfall on Feb. 20 brought large, fluffy snowflakes that heaped up like rounded piles of shredded coconut. That snow was the perfect consistency for making natural snow cones, where you scoop up a bowl of downy snowflakes and drizzle some fruit syrup on top. Coconut milk poured over fresh snow tastes good too. I'm sure the internet has lots of suggestions for fresh snow recipes. The internet has lots of everything.
Most snowflakes are under a half inch across, but occasionally they can approach two inches. Big snowflakes require calm conditions — high winds fragment them into smaller pieces.
Some of the prettiest of snowstorms are the ones on very still days or nights, when large flakes float downwards in a dense, feathery cloud that quickly muffles the landscape. Those are the storms that can fill in your footprints or tire tracks in 30 minutes. Or less.
These fluffier snowfalls tend to occur when the air is on the warmer side. The air temperature must drop to 32 degrees F. or below for snow to occur, and the temperature window for great snow is fairly narrow: depending upon humidity, large snowflakes tend to form between 28 degrees and 15 degrees. If it gets colder, it can certainly still snow, but the humidity tends to be so low that the snowflakes are small, dry and powdery.
Warmer air holds more moisture, so snowstorms at the warmer end of the spectrum tend to produce more snow. Snow under those conditions also contains more water, which is why snowpacks formed in the spring hold more moisture than winter snow.
The amount of water contained in snowfall is called the Snow Water Equivalent. An old often cited rule-of-thumb is that 10 inches of snow is equivalent to an inch of rain. While at times accurate, this is a pretty flimsy guesstimate, and is only true if the density of the snow is 10 percent.
In actuality, the density of new snow can range from under five percent, to about 20 percent when the air temperature is 32 degrees F. An actual snowpack, or even just a week's long accumulation of snow can settle, melt and refreeze to the point that its density reaches 40 percent — and 10 inches of this snow could produce four inches of water.
Some of the snow we've had recently has been of the colder, smaller variety. This drier, harder snow is more powdery and less sticky. It can be blown around by later strong winds, creating what is known as a "ground blizzard." These are produced not by currently falling snow, but by high winds swirling around snow that has already fallen.
Ground blizzards of various sizes are certainly known in Tehachapi, as you would expect in an area with our wind resources. The biggest concern with ground blizzards is reduced visibility for drivers, since the road and other vehicles can suddenly disappear in a white haze of wind-blown snow particles, making travel harrowing.
Whatever kind of snow falls, it all melts away eventually. Around our farm we've gone from snow to ice, and now to mud as the ice thaws. Despite the inconveniences that snows cause, the water it brings is tremendous and needed throughout the state and the West.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.