By David Suzuki with contributions from Ian Hanington, Senior Editor
We Canadians have a special relationship with snow and ice. We ski in it, skate on it, play in it, shovel it, drive through it, sometimes even bicycle through it and suffer through it for many months of the year — some of us more than others, depending on what part of the country we call home. But how much do we know about it?
Do Inuit really have dozens of words for snow and ice? Are snowflakes always six-sided? Can two ever be alike? Why is snow white? Is it a mineral? What makes frozen water so important to us? Some of the answers are more complicated than you might imagine.
Even though English-speaking skiers and snowboarders use multiple adjectives to more accurately describe different types of snow, such as powder, corn and champagne, some say the claim of numerous Inuit words for snow and ice is a myth. But is it?
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, “the few basic words used by the Inuit to refer to different types of snow or ice do not translate everything they can say about these two natural elements.” In Inuktitut, words consist of a foundational element that provides basic meaning, along with other elements “to clarify and/or modify the basic meaning. New words can therefore easily be created from another term.” For example, the word siku refers to ice in general, and sikuaq (“small ice”) refers to “the first layer of thin ice that forms on puddles in the fall.” Sikuliaq (“made ice”) refers to “the new ice appearing on the sea or on rock surfaces.” Some words also have broader meanings, depending on the context. The word maujaq, for example, means “soft ground”, but when referring to snow, it means “the snow in which one sinks.”
So, “the total number of terms referring to the various aspects of snow and ice goes far beyond ten or a dozen,” allowing Inuit to “draw very subtle distinctions between a very high number of snow or ice types.”
When it accumulates on the ground, snow appears white because, unlike many natural materials, it reflects most light rather than absorbing it, and visible light is white. And although snowflakes form in near-infinite patterns and shapes depending on temperature, wind, humidity and even pollution, each single crystal is always hexagonal, or six-sided, because of the complex way water molecules bond. When a frozen droplet or crystal falls from a cloud, it grows as it absorbs and freezes water from the air around it, forming a six-sided prism. The almost infinite variables mean it’s unlikely, although not impossible, for two snowflakes to be exactly alike.
And yes, snow can be classified as a mineral. According to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, “A mineral is a naturally occurring homogeneous solid, inorganically formed, with a definite chemical composition and an ordered atomic arrangement.” Frozen water fits that description.
Snow and ice are important to life on Earth for many reasons. Both are part of the cryosphere, which includes “portions of the earth where water is in solid form, including snow cover, floating ice, glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, seasonally frozen ground and perennially frozen ground (permafrost),” according to the Snow and Ice Data Center. It covers 46 million square kilometres of the planet’s surface, mostly in the Northern Hemisphere, and helps regulate the planet’s surface temperature. Changes in the cryosphere can affect climate and water availability, with corresponding effects on everything from winter sports to agriculture.
By reflecting 80 to 90 per cent of incoming sunlight back into the atmosphere, snow cover cools the Earth. Losing that reflective protection, as is happening in the Arctic, upsets the energy balance and accelerates global warming. Snow also insulates parts of the Earth’s surface, holding heat in and keeping moisture from evaporating. When soil freezes, it prevents greenhouse gases like carbon and methane from escaping into the atmosphere. When snow melts, it fills rivers and lakes.
Instead of complaining about the dark and cold of winter, we should celebrate snow and ice. The cryosphere is an important piece of the intricate, interconnected puzzle that keeps us alive. So, build a snowperson, play some hockey, get out on the slopes and enjoy the gifts that winter brings.