re-sized corn snow

What's the difference between wet and dry snow, natural snow and man-made snow?

“Snow from heaven, not hoses.”

… so boasts Grand Targhee in Wyoming. And it’s no idle boast. The difference between real snow and man-made is enormous, incomparable and… worth discussing. As is the difference between wet and dry snow.

Wet snow, that has gone through repeated melt-freeze cycles, is often called Corn Snow. Under Corn Snow,or Melt-Freeze conditions, a crust forms on the surface that will support your weight when frozen, but turns to deep slush during the heat of the day. The majority of self-sustained skiing injuries occur when people catch an edge in wet, heavy snow.

Dry snow, on the other hand, has little to no liquid water content and is therefore less dense than average, and not sticky. Less dense means there will be a lot of air pockets between the snow crystals, and this is the ‘powder’ that you love to ski in.

The “average” snow to liquid ration is 10:1 – which means that if 10 inches of snow fell and subsequently melted, it would produce 1 inch of liquid precipitation in the rain gauge – or in other words the equivalent of 1 inch of rain. The ratio for wet snow will be less than 10:1 and for dry – higher… it can be as much as 30:1.

To understand the difference between dry snow and wet snow, imagine a bunch of grapes. In this analogy, the grapes are the snow grains and the grape vines are the crystalline bonds between them. Now, imagine that when you wash the grapes, the grape vines dissolve, leaving you with nothing but free-floating grapes. In the snowpack, when water percolates through the snowpack it dissolves the bonds between crystals—the more saturated the snow, the more it dissolves the bonds, thus, dramatically decreasing the strength of the snow.

www.avalanche.org supplied the above diagram and preceding paragraph, I thought the analogy worth reproducing, thank you.

Wet, heavy snow turns to ice MUCH faster than light, fluffy snow because of it’s added water content. Light, fluffy snow actually does not turn into ice as long as the snow itself doesn’t melt.

Snow can also be manufactured using snow cannons (hoses), which actually create tiny granules more like soft hail. This is sometimes called “grits” by those in the southern United States for its similarity to the texture of the food. It is heavier than natural snow and can get slushy as the day progresses. In recent years, snow cannons have been produced that create more natural-looking snow, but these machines are prohibitively expensive.

So there we have it… so now some practical examples. Niseko, Japan has stunningly dry snow which makes it such a fabulous place to ski at. Mount Baker, with the highest snowfall of all, is, apparently, wetter, but amazing. Still a great place, but a different quality to Niseko.

On a broader scale, having done most of my skiing in Europe, we get tired of hearing that “the snow is SO much better in the US of A”. However, there is truth in this boast too. America, and Canada, have fantastic powder. After one day riding the champagne powder of the Rockies a visitor from Europe will, though possibly reluctantly!, agree with this bold statement. The quality of the snow and the terrain are second to none. Though I have to say – the American mountain huts and apres-ski life leave a lot to the imagination… but that is just my humble point of view!

WOW – Skiing doesn’t get any better than this! thanks to randywieman for the video.

… and that’s the difference between wet and dry snow.

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One Response to “What's the difference between wet and dry snow, natural snow and man-made snow?”

  1. z
    2014 | 25 February at 22:16 #

    The water content of the snow is a measure of the weight of the snow; the lower the water content, the lighter the snow.

    Dry snow is cold snow, the colder the snow the drier the snow.

    These are two different things, often the term dry snow is misused in relation to water content.

    For the record you can have light wet snow and heavy dry snow.

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