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Cryospheric Sciences

snow

Image of the Week – Fifty shades of snow

Image of the Week – Fifty shades of snow

When I think of snow, I tend to either think about the bright white ski slopes in the mountains or the large white areas in the Arctic. However, natural phenomena can lead to colorful snow. Our Image of the Week shows snow can be green! Snow can also turn orange, pinkish, grey and even yellow… But where do these different shades of snow come from?


White

The most common color of snow is white (see Fig. 2). Snow generally appears white when it is pure snow, which means that it is only an aggregate of ice and snow crystals. When sunlight meets the snow surface, all frequencies of the sunlight are reflected several times in different directions by the crystals, leading to a white color of the snowpack.

 

Fig. 2: Fresh powder snow, snow crystals [Credit: Introvert, Wikimedia Commons]

 

 

If other particles or organisms are present in the snow though, they can alter the color of the snow’s surface…

Green

Snow can obtain a green color if it is host to an algal bloom (see our Image of the Week). Depending on the wetness of the snow, sunlight conditions and nutrient availability, unicellular snow algae can develop and thrive on the snow. Although it is not clear exactly how fast snow algae grow, algae populations from temperate regions have been found to grow sixteen-fold in one day! As the algae population increases, the snow turns green as the algae reflect the green light back.

 

Red/Pink

The pink-red-colored snow, commonly called “watermelon snow”, can also be caused by snow algae (see Fig. 3). The snow algae responsible for the pink color are similar to the ones responsible for green color. However, these algae use pigments of red color to protect their cells from high sunlight and UV radiation damage during the summer. Just like how we use sunscreen to protect our skin! The red pigments come either from iron tannin compounds or, more commonly, from orange to red-pigmented lipids.

There is also another origin for pink snow: Penguin poo! Indeed, the krill they eat contain a lot of carotenoids that give their poo a red color.

Fig. 3: Watermelon snow streaks [Credit: Wikimedia Commons].

 

Yellow

Yellow snow is the result of a different process (and no, it is not from Penguin pee!). Fig. 4 shows the Sierra Nevada in Spain before and after dust transported from the Sahara settled down on the snow-covered mountain tops. The dust was lifted up from the Sahara desert and blown north before ending its trip in Spain.

Fig. 4: Snow-covered Sierra Nevadas (Spain) before and after a dust deposition event [Credit: modified from NASA’s Earth Observatory]

 

Do these colors have an influence on snow cover?

In all cases of colored snow, the snow surface is darker than before. The darker surface absorbs more sunlight than a white surface, which causes the snow to melt faster… Therefore, although it looks artistic, colored snow is not necessarily healthy for the snow itself…

 

So, if you don’t like winter because everything is boring and white, just think about the variety of snow colors and try to look out for these special types! 🙂

 

Further reading

Edited by David Rounce

Image of the Week – Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…

Image of the Week – Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…

Christmas is coming to town and in the Northern Hemisphere many of us are still dreaming of a white Christmas, “just like the ones we used to know”. But how likely is it that our dreams will come true?


What is the definition of a White Christmas ?

Usually Christmas can be defined as a “White Christmas” if the ground is covered by snow on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day depending on local traditions. If you believe Christmas movies, it seems like Christmas was accompanied by snow much more often in the past than today! But is this really the case, or is it just the “Hollywood” version of Christmas? According to the UK Met Office White Christmases were more likely in the past. Due to climate change, average global temperatures are higher, which in many places reduces the chance of a White Christmas. However, the chances of a White Christmas also depend strongly on where you live…

Living in Western or Southern Europe, the Southern US or the Pacific coast of the US? Unlucky you!

Not too surprisingly, most of the inhabitants of Portugal, Southern Spain, and Southern Italy have probably never experienced White Christmas in their hometown. Maybe more counter intuitively the probability of a White Christmas is also low in most of France, the Netherlands, Ireland, and the Southern UK! In the US, the probability of a White Christmas increases from South to North, except on the Pacific Coast, which has a very low probability of a White Christmas.

Probability of a White Christmas in Europe (snow on the ground on 25th of December), inferred from reanalysis data (ERA Interim from 1979-2015). Probability [in %] increases from white to blue [Credit : Clara Burgard, Maciej Miernecki. We thank the ECMWF for making the data available]

What influences the probability of snowfall on Christmas?

The mean air temperature decreases with altitude and latitude, meaning that chances of a white Christmas increase the further North and at the higher you travel. However, coastal regions represent an exception. The air often has traveled over the ocean before reaching land. As the ocean is often warmer than the land surface in winter, the air in coastal regions is often too warm for snow to form. Additionally, in the Northern Hemisphere, ocean currents on the Western coast of the continents tend to carry warm water to high latitudes, while ocean currents on the Eastern coast tend to carry cold water to low latitudes. The probability of snowfall is therefore even lower in Western coastal regions (e.g. Pacific coast of the US, Atlantic coast of Europe).

Don’t despair !

If you want to increase your chances of experiencing a White Christmas, you have three solutions:

    1. You already live in an area with high probability of White Christmas (lucky you!) – Sit tight and do a “snow dance”, here is one suggestion that we have heard works well:

    2. Travel or move to one of these 10 suggested destinations (e.g. St. Moritz, Swizerland)

      Frozen Lake St. Moritz in Winter 2013 [Credit: Wikimedia Commons]

    3. Build your own snow with this simple recipe!

We hope that you find a satisfactory solution that makes you happy this Christmas. Otherwise, remember that snow is not the only thing that defines Christmas. Enjoy the relaxed time with family and friends and prepare yourself for the coming new year! If you find yourself at a loose end, then there is always the back catalogue of EGU Cryosphere Blog posts to read – and we guarantee a healthy dose of snow and ice can be found here.

So, this is it from the EGU Cryosphere blog team for 2016. See you in 2017 – after all, the snow must go on…

Further reading:

      •  MetOffice website with interesting facts around White Christmas!

Edited by Emma Smith