November 7 – Snowbody’s Business

Today’s factismal: Meteorologists have more terms for snow than Eskimos do.

One fact that everyone knows is that Eskimos have lots of words for snow. It only makes sense that they would; after all, every year the Arctic is covered with the stuff for the better part of six months. But what many people don’t know is that meteorologists have even more terms for snow than the Eskimos do!

"Snow on water" (My camera)

“Snow on water”
(My camera)

Of course, that does depend a little on how you define “words related to snow” and “Eskimo” (we’re pretty sure on what folks mean by “meteorologist”). There isn’t one group of Eskimo any more than there is one group of people in Europe. There are at least twenty-six distinct languages spoken by “Eskimos” (that is, indigenous people living in the Arctic Circle); though the languages all share a common ancestor (much as English and German and Afrikaans do), they differ in how many words they have for any given topic including snow.

And then there is the problem of defining words related to snow. Is “snowing” different from “snow”? Is “snowstorm” different from “blizzard”? Fortunately for us, linguists have been arguing over questions like this for the better part of a century. Based on one influential dictionary for the Yup’ik people, many people say that the Eskimos (or at least the Yup’ik) have fifteen distinct words for snow. They include snowflake (qanuk), frost (kaneq), fine snow/rain particles (kanevvluk), drifting snow (natquik), clinging snow (nevluk ‘clinging debris’, nevlugte- ‘have clinging debris’), fallen snow on the ground (aniu), soft, deep fallen snow on the ground (muruaneq), the crust on fallen snow (qetrar), freshly fallen snow on the ground (nutaryuk), snow floating on water (qanisqineq), snow bank (qengaruk), a block of snow (utvak), a snow cornice (navcaq), a blizzard or snowstorm (pirta), and a severe blizzard (cellallir).

The Hubbard glacier (My camera)

The Hubbard glacier
(My camera)

What about meteorologists? They worry about all types of weather, snow included, and have developed a very exacting terminology for snow and ice. Their lexicon includes snow ablation (snow removal by erosion), avalanche (snow rushing downslope in a mass), blizzard (a winter storm with sustained winds in excess of 35 mph that causes drifting and blowing snow and limited visibility), blowing snow (snow that is being blown by the wind and limits visibility), depth hoar (large crystals that form in snowbanks due to strong temperature gradients), diamond dust (tiny snowflakes too small to branch), drifting snow (snow moved around by the wind that doesn’t limit visibility), flurries (light snowfalls for short time periods), freshet (the increase in river flow caused by melting snow and ice), frost (small ice crystals formed on the surface of cold objects), frozen dew (what it sounds like), glacier (a packed mass of snow and ice), graupel (snowflakes that are coated with ice), heavy snow (more than four inches of snow accumulation in twelve hours), ice pellets (just what they sound like), ice storm (precipitation that falls as rain but freezes on contact with the ground), lake effect snow (the enhanced snowfall that happens on the down wind side of a lake), polycrystalline snow (several snowflakes fused together), quality of snow (the percent by weight of a snow sample that is ice), sleet (snow that melts and refreezes on the way down), snow (duh), snow depth (how deep the frozen precipitation is on the ground), snow flurries (light snow showers), snow grains (very small, white, opaque grains of ice), snow pellets (large white, opaque grains of ice), snow shower (snow falling for brief periods), snow squalls (intense but short periods of moderate to heavy snowfall and strong, gusty winds), snowburst (a very intense shower of snow), snowfall (how much snow has fallen), snowflake (duh), water equivalent (how much water you’d get if you melted the snow), whiteout (blowing snow that reduces the visibility to zero), and winter storm (a heavy snowfall event). If you were keeping score, that’s thirty-three terms or more than twice the number that the Eskimos use!

Hoar on leaves and plants in Oklahoma (My camera)

Hoar on leaves and plants in Oklahoma
(My camera)

Of course, all of that terminology is useless without some data to back it up. And that’s where you come in! All you have to do is go outside when it snows, measure the depth of the snow, and tweet it to the University of Waterloo’s Snowtweets Project. For more details, drift on over to:

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