A friend of yours tells you they have a cool trick to show you. They take a snowball, pull out a lighter, and hold the flame up to the snow. You expect the snow to melt into a pile of slush, but it doesn’t. It turns black. What’s happening here? Can you melt a snowball with a lighter?
A snowball doesn’t melt when burned with a lighter due to the low water content of snow, the insulating qualities of air, and the airspace in the snowball, which prevents dripping water. Lighters also create incomplete combustion, which explains why the snowball blackens.
There’s lots more to delve into ahead. We’ll explain in further detail why snow doesn’t melt if you hold up a lighter to it and what it takes for snow to burn. You won’t want to miss it!
No, You Can’t Melt a Snowball with a Lighter – This Is Why
You can try the lighter trick yourself and you’ll discover that it’s just like what we described in the intro. The flame from the lighter will blacken the affected area of snow, but the snowball itself doesn’t melt.
There is a multitude of reasons this happens, as we touched on in the intro. Let’s elaborate now.
Lighters Provide Incomplete Combustion
The first reason your snowball doesn’t melt when burned is the tool you’re using to create a flame. When you flick the metal wheel of your lighter to produce fire, what happens is a scientific process known as incomplete combustion.
Incomplete combustion results from insufficient oxygen. Fuel needs oxygen, so when the oxygen is lacking, you end up with more combustion products such as soot. The flame will also not be as big or strong.
What causes incomplete combustion varies, but can include too little total excess air, temperature fluctuations, and insufficient oxygen and fuel mixing.
When incomplete combustion occurs, it doesn’t matter what you try to burn, be it a snowball or even metal, it won’t melt. Instead, it will turn black and have a terrible burning odor.
Depending on where you put the lighter against the snowball, the blackening effect can be even more pronounced. For instance, if the lighter is underneath the snowball, the combustion particles will move upward since heat rises.
Snow Doesn’t Have a Lot of Water
This is something we’ve talked about a fair deal on the blog. For snow to be conducive to outdoor activities such as building a snowman or rolling snowballs, the snow must have a moderate amount of free water.
Free water content is the amount of moisture in the snow and can be anywhere from three to 13 percent and up. The less free water, the fluffier the snow. With too much free water, the snow is little more than slush.
Even at 13 percent free water, that’s 87 percent of snow that’s not water. It’s air.
Thus, if you were expecting that holding a lighter up to a snowball for a few minutes would result in a puddle, you’re going to be disappointed.
Air Acts as an Insulator
What does all that air in snow do? It insulates, for one.
If you’ve ever been in an igloo before, you’ll discover that even though the igloo is cold and that the outdoor weather is freezing, you feel comfortable and warm. This is insulation in action.
That effect is replicated throughout the snowball due to the pockets of air. You’d have to get through all that air to melt the snow crystals, which would take a while.
Now compare that to melting ice, either with a lighter or another open flame. Ice is mostly water, so it melts a lot faster. You also get the puddle you were looking for.
Water Hides in the Snowballs’ Airspace
The last reason that a snowball doesn’t begin dramatically dripping when you hold a lighter up to it is that the snowball has plenty of airspace, as we already established. Besides insulating the snow crystals, the multitude of airspace in a snowflake hides the melting snow crystals.
What occurs is what’s referred to as capillary action. What’s capillary action, you ask? The process dictates how liquid will flow. If contained in a narrow area, the rules of capillarity dictate that liquid such as water will travel through that space regardless of whether gravity can encourage the water’s movement.
In a snowball, the water will nestle in the spaces of air between the snow crystals. Since water molecules are quite cohesive, they can stick together easily, creating a bond that’s more difficult to break.
The Real vs. Fake Snow Debate
Some people have assumed that since snow doesn’t melt with a lighter that it must not be real. Instead, they believe that the white, fluffy stuff on the ground in their neck of the woods is “government snow.”
In the snow are supposed to be nanobots that can spy on you.
Conspiracy theories are becoming more prevalent, and many of them can be damaging. Just because you can’t burn snow on the ground doesn’t mean that snow is inauthentic. It’s certainly not government snow, as there is no such thing.
Snow can’t just fall from the sky whenever anyone wants; a set of conditions must be met. The outdoor temperature must be 32 degrees Fahrenheit or under. The air can’t be too moist, but it can’t be completely bereft of moisture either.
Now, does fake snow exist? Yes, it does. The government doesn’t use it though; ski resorts do. By producing artificial snow, ski resorts can extend their season. If there’s a particularly dry winter without a lot of snow, the artificial snow can allow them to open that year so they can earn money.
Artificial snow consists of sodium polyacrylate or another type of polyacrylate polymer. The polymer undergoes shredding to produce snowflake-sized particles. Coloration might occur so the faux snow looks white.
We want to be clear though – artificial snow is only used in ski resorts.
Okay, so how does that explain why southern states like Texas–where the average temperature is in the 70s or 80s–receive snowfall?
The answer to that is easy. It’s global warming. Although from the name, it sounds like global warming only gradually heats our planet, that’s not the only side effect. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the increased temperature of earth now evaporates water at a higher rate, sending it to our atmosphere.
This results in an increase in precipitation, be it through rainstorms or snowstorms. Global warming also causes or contributes to many of the extreme, even erratic weather events that are becoming more commonplace.
We’d say snow in Texas is quite an extreme weather event!
Unless something is done by all of us to slow global warming, then these odd weather occurrences will continue. That doesn’t mean though that there’s a conspiracy afoot. Instead, the reality is much grimmer.
What Does It Take for Snow to Burn?
Snow is not impervious to burning. You’re not going to burn it effectively with a lighter, but other heat sources absolutely can torch snowballs and larger areas of snow. This News 4 article out of Oklahoma from 2014 shows a video of snow burning to seemingly nothing.
It was yet more fuel (pun intended) for conspiracy theorists to assume that fake snow had fallen in Oklahoma too.
Fortunately, Oklahoma Science Museum’s Wayne Harris-Wyrick cleared up the inconsistencies. He mentions that what happened in the viral video is perfectly logical and thus easily explained by science.
The heat source used in the video was so hot that the snow, which started solid, went straight to ice and then vapor. Harris-Wyrick calls the process sublimation.
Sublimation is a topic we’ve touched on here before on the blog. When water loss occurs in the atmosphere, snow can skip the liquid stage and go straight to vapor. It’s not something that happens every day, but it is a possibility.
If all you have on you is a lighter, no, you cannot melt a snowball. What you’ll do is blacken it instead. Now let’s say you used a much stronger heat source. You could burn the snow and possibly cause it to go from a solid right to a vapor in what’s known as sublimation.
The next time you see a strange snow event, research it. There’s usually a scientific explanation for every weather pattern!