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It won't melt? Why this week's snow was different

Published On: Jan 30 2014 09:06:52 PM EST
Updated On: Jan 31 2014 08:27:39 AM EST

There's no melting when a lighter is held to the dry snow.

The idea that the government is trying to control the weather is nothing new. Now a new theory is out that sounds a little flaky, probably because it is.

Videos have been popping up all over the internet this week (see below) of people trying to melt snow from the recent snow storm. When they put a lighter to the snow, there's no puddle of water that forms and the snow turns black. Some have even reported the snow has a "chemical" smell to it when burned.

While the conspiracy theories are always fun to read, there's nearly always a perfectly good scientific explanation. 

SUPER DRY SNOW

This week's snow was some of the driest snow most areas have seen in ages. Dry snow occurs when both the atmosphere temperature and the surface temperatures fall below the freezing mark, causing the snow to have a minimal amount of liquid. In contrast to wet snow, which average snow to liquid ratio is 10 to 1 (ten inches of snow melts to one inch of water), dry snow may have a ratio as high as 30 to 1, meaning that there are more air pockets between the snow crystals. Remember this.

SUBLIMATION

When a lighter is placed against the snow, the snow vaporizes in a process called sublimation. Sublimation is the process of converting a solid to a gas, without the intermediate liquid stage. This describes why the snow turned into vapor without the snow first melting. Sublimation occurs mainly when the air is cold and very dry. Such was the case during this week's snow storm.

THE SPONGE EFFECT

The dry snow IS melting but instead of dripping into a puddle,  what little water that melts is being absorbed by the dry snow behind it, much like a sponge. Better yet, think of a cotton ball. Try using a medicine dropper and put water on it. Watch how much water can be absorbed by the pockets of air inside the cotton ball before it starts dripping. The same thing is happening with the snow.

THE BLACKENED SNOW

Several videos show the lighter turning the snow black. The thought is that it is some type of supernatural snow. There's a perfectly good explanation for this too.

Notice in the videos, the lighter is being held directly underneath the snow.  If you put a lighter or a match under nearly anything, you'll get soot on that object.

The following images are two examples from the metabunk.org website. The first is a lighter held under a piece of glass. The glass isn't melting, but there's soot that forms on the underside of the glass thanks to the butane. In the second example, a lighter is held underneath an ice cube. Soot residue forms on the ice cube as it begins to melt.

burning snow
burning snow

WHAT'S THAT SMELL?

Finally, what may be the least complicated explanation is the smell that people are experiencing during the experiment.

The smell is likely coming from the fumes from the butane in the lighter. If you've ever used a lighter before, you can often smell the butane. Try melting it with a match and you'll get the smell of sulfur. 

The most realistic test is to leave it in a stainless steal bowl in room temperature in a controlled environment away from any other chemicals. Let it melt and them smell it. 

I think you'll find their is still a faint smell, but it is much less potent that when it is melted using fire. 

By nature, snow truly isn't pure. It has a trace amount of chemicals in it as it falls through our polluted atmosphere. So does rain. This is why you shouldn't make a habit of drinking rainwater without purifying it first. 

WHY ALL THE FUSS?

As a meteorologist, the idea of modified snow is quite silly. Yes, you can make snow using a snow machine. Ski resorts do it all the time. But the atmospheric temperatures determine whether it will be a wet snow or a dry snow.

This wasn't a government "test" to see how people would react to snow, nor were the clouds "seeded" to produce snow in places that don't normally get it.

Despite its pure, white color, snow is anything from pure, especially because of pollution. But even with the trace chemicals snow absorbs as it falls through the atmosphere, it isn't supernatural.