What Holds a Snowball or Snowman Together?

When you have a perfectly spherical snowball in your hand, you have two choices. You can either chuck it at a neighbor and start a snowball fight or continue rolling the snowball into the base of a snowman. What keeps that snowball–big or small–packed together so well?

What holds a snowball or snowman together is purely scientific. You introduce hydrogen bonds by applying pressure on the snowflake edges until they melt somewhat. Once you stop shaping the snowball, the snow crystals will refreeze, making a hardened outer layer that keeps the snowball together. 

We have plenty more we want to talk about ahead, including the specifics on what makes a snowball hold its shape and structure. We’ll then take that information and apply it on a bigger scale, such as rolling huge snowballs. Keep reading! 

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What Holds Snow Together When Making a Snowball or a Snowman?

When it comes to snow, whether it will stick together or fall apart has everything to do with water.

You see, water is a molecule. In each water molecule is a single oxygen atom and dual hydrogen atoms. When the temperatures are cold enough for it to snow (approximately 32 degrees Fahrenheit), the water molecules will freeze.

What’s happening here is that the molecules reduce their pace so it’s easier for them to attach. This is how snow becomes solid. 

As you remember, water is integral in another way regarding whether snow will stick. 

Free water, as we’ve discussed on the blog, is the amount of moisture in snow. The absence of free water in snow produces dry, powder-like snow. Try as you may, it’s nearly impossible to make something solid out of powdery snow. You’d have to wet the snow with a garden hose or a bucket, increasing the snow’s rate of free water. 

Once the free water content increases to eight or 13 percent, the snow has the ideal amount of moisture for sticking. When snow is greater tahn 13 percent free water, the moisture content is to excess and the snow is more like slush. It’s just as useless as powdery snow.

There’s another part of the equation in making a snowman stick besides water. That’s pressure, meaning the pressure you create when you shape a snowball. 

Even when you’re wearing winter gloves to make a snowball, the warmth from your hands begins to melt the snowflake’s outer edges somewhat. This is what’s needed to activate hydrogen bonds in the snowflake. 

When you stop applying pressure because you’re done shaping the snowball, the snow crystals are exposed again to colder temperatures and will freeze. In refreezing, an outer shell develops that keeps the snowball together.

You might have heard of us refer to the process as sintering, as that’s the technical name for it. Sintering creates a strong structure for a snowball or a snow mound that might become a snowman or even a snow fort. 

How Big Can a Snowball Get? 

To recap then, it’s a combination of water and pressure (not heat) that creates awesome snowballs. Now that you’ve unlocked the keys to success, so to speak, you’ve begun making more snowballs and they’ve stuck together better than ever before.

Maybe you’ve since graduated to rolling larger snowballs for snowmen. As you shape another sizable base for your snowman, you can’t help but wonder, how big can you go with a snowman?

We have the answer to that! In March 2013, students at Michigan Tech rolled the largest snowball on record, says Michigan news site M Live. The snowball is 9.28 feet high with a diameter of 10.45 feet and a circumference of 32.94 feet. 

How much would such a massive snowball weigh? M Live wasn’t clear, only saying several tons. Guinness World Records later came through and verified the snowball as being the current biggest.

 This isn’t the first time Michigan Tech had broken the record for the biggest snowball. M Live says that, back in 2006, Michigan Tech had first earned the esteemed award.

Then, Dartmouth College in New Hampshire took the prize. Michigan Tech later won it back. A statement from students in the M Live article mentions that if another college (or a business or individual) broke the record for largest snowball after Michigan Tech that its student body was dedicated to earning the title for yet a third time.

According to Guinness’ website, as of this writing, the Michigan Tech snowball record still stands. 

How to Roll Big Snowballs

Okay, so maybe your snowball won’t be 32 feet in circumference and about 11 feet in diameter, but you’d love to roll snowballs so big that you impress everyone in the neighborhood. How do you do it? Here are our suggestions.

Wait for the Right Snow

The students at Michigan Tech have an advantage that those at Dartmouth don’t – it snows a lot in Detroit. The city gets about 33 inches of snow on average, which exceeds the countrywide average of 27.8 annual inches of snow.

Even still, that doesn’t mean that every snow that falls in Michigan is perfect for making a snowman or large snowballs. 

You need temperatures of around 32 degrees, as mentioned, and moist snow with a free water percentage of eight to 13 percent. You can work with drier snow by wetting it, but that’s going to be impractical considering the sheer size of the snowballs you wish to make. You’d require buckets full of water. 

Although playing the waiting game can test your nerves, once you finally get that perfect snowfall that’s moist but not soaking, it will have all been worth it. 

Get a Big Team

Even if you’re athletic and strong, once your snowball reaches a certain size, rolling it by yourself is going to prove difficult. There’s strength in numbers, after all, so recruit your friends or a couple of neighbors. 

The more people on your team, the greater the manpower to roll your snowball to epic proportions. 

Choose a Flat Area for Rolling the Snowball

You would hate to roll your snowball to several feet in diameter only for it to get snagged on a large rock or a tree branch and fall apart. Before you start rolling a snowball, select a flat, open expanse of land free of overhead or ground-level obstacles. 

Push, Push, Push

Rolling a large snowball starts out easy, but as the snowball accumulates mass, it will be harder to push it around. This is when you’ll need the assistance of the others on your team more than ever. 

As you continue pushing the snowball forward, ensure that it stays straight the entire time. If the snowball becomes lopsided, then it won’t be structurally secure! 

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Snowball Storage – Tips and Best Practices 

You did it! Together with the effort of your entire neighborhood, you rolled a big snowball you’re very proud of. Sure, the snowball won’t beat any Guinness World Records, but it’s certainly the biggest snowball you’ve ever had the fortune of seeing with your own eyes.

Whether you make a snowman out of the huge snowball or marvel at its size unadorned, you’d prefer to keep the snowball around for a while. We’ve discussed what it takes to prevent snowballs and snowmen from melting, so here’s a collection of best practices to follow.

Avoid the Sun

When planning where your massive snowball or snowman will go, you need more than a flat, level area. The snowman’s home must also be hidden from the sun. Although sunlight is sparse in the winter, the penetrating UV rays of the sun are still powerful enough to melt your snowman. 

You might build your snowman with the protection of surrounding trees or perhaps even under an awning. You can even create a snow wall solely to safeguard your snowman from the sun. Keep in mind though that as the snow wall takes the brunt of the sunlight day in and day you that you’ll have to reinforce it or even rebuild it. 

Depending on when in the winter you build your snowman, the sun angle changes. The angle is only 27 degrees in December, then 36 degrees by the end of February. As spring gets underway, the sun’s angle increases to 47 degrees. 

You can theoretically keep your snowman alive into the spring with these tips, but part of that will require having the foresight to accommodate for the increasing sun angle. 

Refreeze at Night

When temperatures surpass 32 degrees, snow begins to melt. It’s that simple. Although you can’t help what the weather does, you can solidify your melting snowman with a garden hose, a tap, or a few buckets of water.

Each day, just as the sun is setting, cover your snow structure in water. By the time night is on the horizon, the cold temperatures will have allowed the water to completely freeze. Each layer of water is like extra armor the snowman has, which should keep it standing longer. 

Try Ammonium Chloride Salt

Here’s another trick that gives you more control over your snow structure even when the temperatures begin to increase. Using ammonium chloride salt can reduce the melting point of snow, with the melting point being the temperature in which your snowman begins to melt.

Insulate the Snow

Insulating or creating warmth for your snowball might seem counterintuitive, but it isn’t, trust us. Insulation limits the effects of thermal exchanges on your snowman, which means it’s less prone to temperature fluctuations that could increase its risk of melting.

In the olden days, people would build ice palaces for storing snow and ice, and they always used insulating materials such as straw. This ensured they had a supply of ice during sweltering summers when air conditioning didn’t yet exist.  

You don’t need an icehouse or a baleful of straw to insulate your snowman. Throw a coat over him and that should make all the difference! 

Final Thoughts

What holds a snowball or snowman together is a combination of water molecules and the pressure you create when you handle snow. Even if snow sticks, it’s still liable to melt in temperatures over 32 degrees. Insulate your snowman, refreeze it, or use ammonium chloride salt to keep your snow structure around longer! 

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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