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Can snowstorms make thunder?

Alex Branton stands outside the Mount Washington Observatory.
Mount Washington Observatory
Alex Branton stands outside the Mount Washington Observatory.

How is snow made and what’s it made out of? Why is it white and sparkly? Why do snowflakes look different? Can snowstorms have thunder? Why do some places, like mountains, get more snow than others? Answers to all of your questions about snow, with Seth Linden, who works for the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Plus we hear what it’s like to live at the top of Mount Washington, famous for its extreme weather, from Alexandra Branton, a meteorologist who works at the observatory at the top of the mountain, even during the frigid winter.

Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slides | Transcript

  • Snow is formed by a few simple processes. Firstly, water vapor freezes into ice crystals around tiny particles in the atmosphere. These crystals grow into flakes as it falls through the atmosphere. The flakes become heavier and eventually land on the ground as snow.
  • There are four basic types of snowflakes; hexagonal, needles, prisms, and dendrites. These different types of snowflakes are developed through temperature dependent atmospheric conditions, like slightly different temperatures and slightly different amounts of moisture. Hexagonal plates have branches, and as they fall through the clouds, they begin to attract more ice crystals developing their unique shape. 
  • Because snow is made out of water when it freezes it forms ice crystals, which means it’s actually translucent. As a result, when the light reflects off the snow, it reflects all the colors to our eyes. This makes the snow appear white, shiny, and sometimes even sparkly.
  • You can have snow in tropical regions! Snow formation has to do with elevation. For example, Peru sits near the equator, but they still have snow on their mountain tops because they have the right condition and elevation needed to make snow. 
  • There are places in the world that are cold enough to make snow but don’t get snow because of a lack of moisture. 
  • The summit of Mount Washington is the tallest mountain the northeast with an elevation of 6,280 feet. The tallest mountain in the United States is Mount Whitney,  with an elevation of about 15,000 feet. But Mount Washington experiences much more extreme weather than Mount Whitney. 
  • Like learning about the weather? Try making a rain gauge or a snow gauge to measure the precipitation where you live. There may even be a citizen science project near you that would love to have the data you collect! 
  • Atmospheric science is based in physics and earth science. So being a meteorologist requires a lot of math understanding.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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