This Sunday morning, as the sun shines brightly upon the snow-covered fields, I can see the light sparkling here and there across the white blanket, as if someone tossed glitter or diamonds over the landscape. According to meteorologists, “snow sparkle” is special, created when “diamond dust” snow falls from the sky. These special effects happen only when certain weather conditions are met.|
Only dry snow refracts light in such a way because the dry, individual ice crystals usually remain separated from each other. Rays of sunlight hit the flat ice crystals on the uppermost layer of snow and the crystals act like tiny mirrors, reflecting the light. The white diamond glitter effect happens when the light bounces off the top surface. When the light bounces off the bottom surface, it is refracted (separated) more and reflects the various colors of the rainbow.
Snow sparkle and diamond dust remind me of a night when I was a pre-teen, and my mother awakened me about 1 a.m. She had never done so before, nor ever after. It was an unordinary event, and I awakened confused. “Let’s go for a walk,” she whispered to me, a glimmer in her eye. Instantly, I was curious and wide awake. She did not rouse my older sister—this was just for the two of us, my mother and me. I knew something special was afoot.
We slipped into our winter gear (snow boots, coats, hats, scarves, and gloves) in the dimly lit kitchen, sneaky and quiet so as not to awaken my father or my sister. We slowly let ourselves out the front door, softly giggling as the main door creaked and the storm door clicked upon closing. When we turned to look at the neighborhood and start our mysterious night walk, I gasped. We were setting off into a magical sparkling world.
The full Snow Moon looked down from above, illuminating every speck of falling diamond dust, bouncing brilliantly across the fresh blanket of snow sparkle. Every surface of the silent world around us shimmered and enhanced only by the moon and streetlamps, presented an otherworldly contrast between the dark of night and the white radiance overcoming it. It was as if stardust was sprinkling down upon us from above, and the world was hushed in glowing awe.
I don’t recall the conversation Mother and I had that night, walking the sparkling circle of our suburban neighborhood. (Knowing the two of us, we could not have walked that night in silence.) But I remember the shared experience, Mother and I sneaking out to witness a rare meteorological magic together. Snow sparkle requires special conditions, and will always be, for me, connected to that exceptional winter many years ago when Mother and I took a special walk in the middle of the night.
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Footnote: Later that winter, we saw “snow rollers” in the hayfields along the Muskingum River. These are rare cylindrical snow cylinders formed naturally as chunks of snow roll downhill or are blown along the ground by the wind, picking up further snow along the way. Unlike snowballs made by people, snow rollers are often hollow. The inner layers are weak and thin compared to the outer layers, and can easily be blown away, leaving what looks like a Swiss roll. I have never seen them again in the many decades following that winter.
Several conditions are needed for snow rollers to form: There must be a relatively thin surface layer of wet, loose snow, with a temperature near the melting point of ice. Under this thin layer of wet snow, there must be a substrate to which the thin surface layer of wet snow will not stick, such as ice or powder snow (which can produce snow sparkles). The wind must be strong enough to move the snow rollers, but not strong enough to blow them apart.
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