What's the best snow?

By meteomorris on 10 November 2017 · 0

Not every snowflake is the same. Sometimes the snow is light and fluffy, sometimes it's heavy. It's said that the Inuit have 100 words for snow and I have to say that there are some versions I use more often than the other. Champaign powder, slush puppy, deep pow, corn snow, artificial snow are just a few versions. Not every flake is the same and therefore snow really can feel different. But what's the explanation of these differences. Some clarification about the wonderful world of snow below.

Snow is more than frozen water

Snow is only frozen water, the surf brand O'neill used this slogan in the last century to make a successful entry into the world of snowboarding. There's some truth in it, but the reality is a bit different. Snow is mostly air and a little bit of frozen water. On average, snow consist for 90% of air and only 10% of water, which means that under normal conditions 1 mm of water turns into 1 cm of snow. The more air in the snow, the less water is needed to produce a centimeter of snow. There basicly are four types of snow:

  • Light snow
  • Normal snow
  • Heavy snow
  • Technical snow

Light snow

Light snow is fluffy, loose and in its optimal condition even without cohesion. When the snow is very light, the snow becomes dry. It's great snow to ride on your skis or snowboard and it gives you the feeling that you (literally) float on air. You cut through it like a hot knife through butter. This kind of snow feels bottomless when it falls in huge amounts. Other terms for this kind of snow are champaign powder, blower pow, cold smoke blower pow, fluffy stuff, pipapowder, super dry snow etc...

Meteorologists speak of light snow if it contains less than 7% of water. A little bit of moisture of less than 0.7 mm results in a lightweight centimeter of snow. Snow like that consists for 93% of air. It is often thought that we do not have such light snow in the Alps and we have to go to Canada, the US or Japan. That is not entirely true. That kind of snow comes down even in the Alps every now and then as long as the right conditions are present.

Light snow requires low temperatures (as in: as cold as possible) and preferably no wind wind at all. A cold front or, even better, a cold pit in the atmosphere is enough. These dumps come down on the lower parts of the mountain only during the coldest periods of the year, but can also happen in March and April (as long as it's cold enough). A lot of light snow can be made with very little moisture. Too bad that the sun is a deal breaker on our latitudes quite a lot of times. Even the most fluffy snow will become more compact due to the radiation of the sun. The temperature and the wind are the two factors that pretty much kill the snow in Europe. But once you've experienced it, you'll exactly know what I mean.

Arjen rides light powder in Livigno
Arjen rides light powder in Livigno

Normal snow

Normal snow isn't light, but it's not too heavy either. It's good snow. This is the kind of snow we mostly find in the Alps. The temperatures often go up and down during a storm, the wind can be strong and the temperatures aren't that low. The Alps are far enough from the Atlantic Ocean to create snow that's not that humid, but it's seldom that cold that the snow becomes super light. It's just great powder. Beginning freeriders become very stoked about this kind of snow (and so are we), but it can be better.

When you ride in normal snow, you never hit the bottom. The flakes are a bit bigger and you have to try a bit harder to get a faceshot.

Meteorologists speak of normal snow when it contains more than 7%, but less than 12% of water. You'll need 0.7 to 1.1 mm of water for a full centimeter of snow. This is the kind of snow you'll find in the Alps. This snow is already binding from the moment it falls.

The flakes are bigger
The flakes are bigger

Heavy snow

Heavy snow consists of more moisture and is compact. The flakes that come down are bigger and heavier and it's easy to stick them together. Heavy snow is wet snow and contains a lot of water. In its most dramatic form it is difficult to ride in it. Sierra concrete, slush puppy, heavy mud are terms to characterize this snow.

Meteorologists speak of heavy snow if you need more than 1.1 mm of water to produce a centimeter of snow. This type of snow often comes down during an incoming warm front. The air is getting warmer and the snow is heavier. You also find this type of snow often lower on the mountain, because it is not cold enough. On average, precipitation comes down as snow around 150-200 meters lower than the freezing level. If the freezing level is at 1750 meters, the snow line will be around 1550 meters. The snow coming down between 1750 and 1550 meters is heavier and more wet than the snow that comes down on the upper parts of the mountain.

It's great to surf on heavy snow
It's great to surf on heavy snow

Snow shrinks A meter of fresh snow won't result in the growth of the snow cover with one meter. Check out this article and you'll know why.

Natural snow mainly consists of air. With that much air in the snow it's not strange that a snow cover shrinks when flakes are sticking together. Due to the weight of the snow, the wind or the continuous fluctuating temperature, the snow cover shrinks. As a consequence, a 20 cm dump is rapidly shrinking because the air is squeezed out and the flakes connect.

Technical snow

Technical snow is made by machines. That's one of the reasons why Europeans like skiing in North America: they think that the snow is softer. And it is, because technical snow isn't used that much in North America. And most of the European resorts can't think of a season without technical snow. That has nothing to do with a lack of natural snowfall. Resorts need the technical snow to maintain a high quality of the slopes. This is snow for the groomers, not for the backcountry. It's necessary to give the masses a good experience, but it has nothing to do with freeriding. Technical snow needs around 2 to 2,8 mm of water to create a centimeter of snow.

There's not much air in technical snow
There's not much air in technical snow


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