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 Causes Snow to Feel Fluffy?
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!
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.
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 Fluffier?
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!
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!