Eskimos have 70 or so words for snow, not surprising when you think about it. No doubt they would be amazed to know that we have a similarly large number of words for grass -- rye, Bermuda, dichondra, crab, and so on. But as the Eskimos are to grass we are to snow: largely unaware of its many forms and varieties, its secrets and mysteries.
The Eskimos of Greenland, for example, distinguish between snow that is falling, ganik, and snow that has fallen, aput. Canadian Eskimos go even further in denoting the subtleties of snow: They have a dozen words that describe snow according to its degree of fineness or coarseness and softness or hardness -- conditions that affect the running of their sleds.
By contrast, according to The Wonder of Snow by Corydon Bell, the ancient Greek words for snow literally meant "wooly water" and "wet wool." The Greeks seemed to regard snow more as a nuisance than as a benefit.
And yet we of warmer climes are no less dependent on snow than the Eskimos. Because of a single cosmic quirk, the tilting of the Earth on its axis, we pass through seasonal fluctuations, including winter and its snow. Although we sometimes curse snow for the inconvenience it causes, without it and the water it provides, life on Earth wouldn't be as we know it.
So the next time you are in the snow, think about what that cold, white, mysterious substance means to us. Some anecdotes, facts and folklore that will help you appreciate this spectacular element:
How much does a single snowflake weigh? Almost nothing, really. Yet a 6-inch layer of wet new snow over an acre of land weighs 113 tons. That's a lot of "almost nothing." It's no wonder that roofs in snow country are pitched. A 10-inch snowfall on a flat roof 100-by-150 feet weighs 39 tons. In the same snowfall, a small house of 40-by-75 feet would be supporting almost 9 tons.
Consider: If New York State was uniformly covered by a 15-inch fall, the snow would weigh more than 5 billion tons.
The "permanent snow" of glaciers and icecaps covers 12 percent of the Earth's land surface. If it were possible to carve the Greenland icecap into jumbo-sized ice cubes and distribute them among the world's people, every man, woman and child would have a new 2-ton chunk available every minute of the year.
And the Greenland ice sheet accounts for only 10 percent of the Earth's ice mass. Antarctica represents 85 percent of the ice crust, and the remaining 5 percent is in the form of glaciers scattered over the world's high mountains.
Interestingly, a fair number of those mountains are found in equatorial regions -- Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya in Africa, for example.
If all of the world's ice were to melt (an increasingly ominous possibility, given the Earth's accelerating rate of warming), sea levels would rise by around 200 feet. Continental shores would recede; ports would disappear; the very shape of landforms would change.
Mention the word snowflake and most people think of those lovely six-pointed or six-sided configurations used to illustrate Christmas cards. But those are snow crystals, not snowflakes, which actually are large bunches of crystals.
Nor is every snow crystal a thing of beauty. In fact, most are unimpressive clumps of ice, irregular, asymmetric and modified -- injured, really -- by collisions with other snow particles, by wind or by rime (a deposit of frozen water particles on the surface of the crystal).
Nevertheless, there is a common awareness of an astonishing variety among snow crystals. They have been classified into seven main types, within which are 37 variations that are regularly discoverable in snowfalls. Within these is an apparently limitless number of crystalline forms, some of which are exquisitely symmetrical and complex. Rarely, in fact, does a crystal formation show the same intricate pattern on both its front and back.
Although snow crystals were the subject of interest in China as early as the second century B.C., when their six-sided nature was noted, it remained for Johannes Kepler, one of the great scientific theorists in history, to be the first Westerner to see and be mystified by the patterns and forms in snow crystals.
One morning after a night spent observing the stars, Kepler stepped out of the observatory at Prague and became aware of other stars, tiny ones, that shone brightly on the dark fur that edged his thick coat. Although the crystals were of myriad design, all their branching forms seemed to fall into one definite pattern.
In 1611 Kepler wrote, as a New Year's gift to his benefactor, a short, lively essay in which he attempted to answer the question, "why snowflakes in their first falling, before they are entangled in larger plumes, always fall with six corners and with six rods, tufted like feathers."
Kepler was not aware that many snow crystals have nonhexagonal shapes, but he did raise an interesting point: Why indeed? His fascinating, witty essay draws up much that was interesting at the time in both science and religion without, however, succeeding in answering the question (which, by the way, remained unanswered until an understanding of atomic particles provided at least a partial explanation).
Eventually Kepler had to fall back on the concept of the universal spirit pervading and shaping everything:
"The cause of the six-sided shape of a snowflake is none other than that of the ordered shapes of plants and of numerical constants; and since in them nothing occurs without supreme reason ... I do not believe that even in a snowflake this ordered pattern exists at random."
Robert Speer is an editor at the Chico (Calif.) News & Review, where this article originally appeared.