The difference between light, fluffy snow and firm, wet snow is one you’ll feel immediately when you try to shovel. You can finish shoveling the front yard and the walkway in 30 minutes if there’s fluffy snow, but wetter snow takes you so much longer to slog through. As your digits freeze in the cold, you can’t help but wonder, why is some snow fluffy?
Light, fluffy snow is more snow than water, which is part of what keeps it lightweight. This snow also appears only when the atmosphere’s layers are below freezing. That prevents each snowflake from melting so it remains airy. Even where you live can dictate whether you get fluffy snow!
In this article, we’ll talk further about where fluffy snow comes from, what you can use fluffy snow for, and if it’s possible to fluff up heavier snow. This information will come in handy for all your favorite wintertime activities, so make sure you keep reading!
What is Fluffy Snow Called?
That light, dry, fluffy snow is also referred to as powdery snow. Many snowboarders and snow skiers refer to newly fallen snow as “fresh powder.” This type of snow is perfect for heading to the slopes with a snowboard or a pair of skis. You can easily cut through with your board. Plus, if you fall, the snow is light and soft.
Fluffy snow or powdery snow looks and feels almost like powder, hence the name. It is created by snowflakes falling through cold, dry air. This causes the flakes not to stick together and be relatively dry. It’s weird to refer to snow as dry, but that’s precisely what fluffy snow is. The snowflakes have less water or moisture (about 3%).
The opposite of fluffy snow is “wet snow.” This snow has about 15% water content, much greater than only 3% in dry snow. Due to this increase in moisture, wet snow is much easier to work with when attempting to build a snowman or snowball.
What Causes Fluffy Snow?
Snow is not a uniform weather event due to how it’s formed. For example, sometimes the powdery white stuff falling from the sky are snowflakes. The technical definition of a snowflake is a single ice crystal or a group of ice crystals that come from the clouds.
If not snowflakes, then what’s falling could be hoarfrost. This type of snow still requires ice crystals, but since the air frost point temperature is higher than the surface temperature, moisture doesn’t behave normally. Moisture usually transitions from a vapor to a liquid, but with hoarfrost, there’s no liquid phase, only vapor to solid.
Hoarfrost is still snow, but the linking ice crystals can make hoarfrost powdery.
Keeping that in mind, what makes some snow fluffy and other snow heavy and slushy? There are several factors in play here, as we touched on in the intro. Let’s talk more about them now.
The atmosphere is comprised of layers. These include the thermosphere, mesosphere, stratosphere, troposphere, and exosphere. The temperatures of these layers vary, often to a huge degree, but are all required to be below freezing for fluffy snow to develop.
This creates consistently cold air that will prevent the snowflakes from melting. Since each snowflake can remain as an individual, the snow has a fluffier texture.
Another reason that snow comes out fluffy is due to the snow-to-liquid ratio.
In other words, when snow melts, how much liquid does it accumulate? This tells us the snow-to-liquid ratio.
Most snow has a 10:1 ratio. This means that you’d get one inch of liquid per 10 inches of snow. Heavy snow has a smaller snow-to-liquid ratio of only 5:1. That’s why it’s so wet.
Fluffy snow though is light and sometimes powdery. Its snow-to-liquid ratio is higher than average, as it’s 20:1.
Proximity to a Moisture Source
Do you live anywhere close to an ocean or another large body of water? This too will influence the type of precipitation you experience each winter.
The moisture source and your proximity to it increase the propensity for dense, wet snow. Since that’s the exact opposite of light, fluffy snow, we can deduce that the further you are from a moisture source, the greater your chances of having light snow to shovel.
What Is Fluffy Snow Good for?
Now that you understand where fluffy snow comes from, you appreciate it a lot more. If the snow that’s blanketing the ground right outside your door is light and fluffy, what can you do with it? Plenty!
As we talked about earlier, fluffy snow is a shoveler’s dream. You won’t have to strain to collect the snow on your shovel. It’s airy and transfers easily. The snow also weighs so little that your knees don’t buckle as you carry a shovelful.
You usually end an afternoon of shoveling snow with an achy back, but not when shoveling fluffy snow. You’ll be able to sip your hot cocoa in your favorite chair and truly relax, not reach for the painkillers in your kitchen pantry.
Have you ever taken a close look at snow? Like a really close look? Sure, when it’s wet and slushy, snow isn’t that impressive to look at, but that’s not the case with fluffy snow. If you have a high-end camera, you can use it to bring out the details of each individual snowflake, drinking in the wonder that is winter.
Making Snow Angels
Do your kids love to romp and jump around? That’s not so fun to do in wet, slushy snow. Their winter gear will be soaked in a matter of minutes. Before you know it, the kids will start complaining that it’s too cold and ask you to come inside.
Fluffy, soft snow won’t chill the kids to the bone, so go ahead, let them jump in the snow and make a few snow angels. This snow feels great, so they might as well!
Related Reading: Tips to Making the Perfect Snow Angel
There’s a snow skiing term for fluffy snow. It’s known as champagne powder. Doesn’t that sound just delightful?
Although you can go snow skiing in compacted and soft snow alike, there’s something special about gliding down the hill in soft snow. You almost feel like you’re floating.
We saved the most fun winter activity for last: snowmobiling!
Sledders (the slang term for snowmobilers) live for powdery, light snow. If the snow outside is too slushy, it can really take away from your snowmobiling experience. You need at least six inches of fluffy snow for the best day ever.
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What Is Fluffy Snow NOT Good for?
We love fluffy snow, as we’re sure you do too, but you have to know when to call a spade a spade. If you want to do the following activities, you need wetter snow than what’s on the ground now.
Okay, if you really wanted to, you could take the kids sledding or snow tubing in fluffy snow. It needs to be deep snow though or the sled’s skis won’t be able to get a secure enough grip in the snow. If you just have a dusting of fluffy snow, that’s not going to cut it.
Building a Snowman/Snow Fort
We’ve talked about this on the blog, but the best type of snow for building structures such as a snow fort or a snowman needs more moisture than what you’ll find in fluffy snow.
The ideal moisture percentage is between three and eight percent. The free water in wetter snow will allow the snow crystals to adhere together. Think of the water more like glue and you can see why it’s so integral.
You can increase the free water content of fluffy snow by compacting it and then wetting it with a gardening hose. Then the snow might be in better condition for building a snowman.
If you can’t use fluffy snow for rolling large snowballs such as for a snowman, then you can’t expect to be able to make smaller snowballs either. Fluffy snow will fall apart in your hand. Once again, wetting it might make it more conducive to your activities.
Can You Make Snow Fluffy?
If you can make fluffy snow wetter, then can’t the opposite happen as well?
Not really. Powdery, fluffy snow lacks moisture, so by introducing moisture such as with a gardening hose, you can change its moisture composition.
Wet snow already has moisture, so you wouldn’t need to add more. Instead, what you’d have to do is take away the moisture in the snow. There’s no way to do that, although it’d be cool if you could.
What this means is that if you have wet snow, you’re stuck with the slush. You can only hope that the next snowfall is lighter and fluffier!
Can You Make Fluffy Snow More Sticky?
If your recent snowfall is fluffy or powdery, you cannot build much with it as it simply will not stick together. Is there a way to turn your fluffy snow into a more wet and sticky snow?
The answer is yes if you put in some extra time and work. To make dry, fluffy snow more sticky, you need to increase the water content of the snow. The simplest way is to get the garden hose with a spray nozzle and lightly spray down a pile of snow.
You can also shovel some snow in a wheelbarrow, add some water to it, and mix. It’s best to go light on the water, check the texture, and add more if needed. Adding more water than trying to take water away is always easier. If you do add too much water, the snow will become a slushy mess. In this case, you should add some more dry snow to the mix.
Once you obtain the right snow to water content, building snowman, snowballs, and snow forts will be possible.
One tip I suggest to make your snowman or snow fort last longer is lightly spraying it down at night. In the overnight freezing hours, the water will harden your structure even more, making it stronger and lasting longer.
Fluffy snow is caused by low atmospheric temperatures and low moisture content. Making your home far from moisture sources such as the ocean also increases the chances of fluffy snow falling where you live.
Whether you go snowmobiling, snow skiing, or you decide to take it easy and make some snow angels, there’s plenty of fun stuff to do in fluffy snow!