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A snowflake consists of roughly 1019 water molecules, which are added to its core at different rates and in different patterns, depending on the changing temperature and humidity within the atmosphere that the snowflake falls through on its way to the ground. As a result, snowflakes vary among themselves, while following similar patterns.
Snow crystals form when tiny supercooled cloud droplets (about 10 μm in diameter) freeze. These droplets are able to remain liquid at temperatures lower than −18 °C (0 °F), because to freeze, a few molecules in the droplet need to get together by chance to form an arrangement similar to that in an ice lattice. Then the droplet freezes around this “nucleus”. In warmer clouds an aerosol particle or “ice nucleus” must be present in (or in contact with) the droplet to act as a nucleus. Ice nuclei are very rare compared to that cloud condensation nuclei on which liquid droplets form. Clays, desert dust and biological particles can be nuclei. Artificial nuclei include particles of silver iodide and dry ice, and these are used to stimulate precipitation in cloud seeding.
Once a droplet has frozen, it grows in the supersaturated environment—one where air is saturated with respect to ice when the temperature is below the freezing point. The droplet then grows by diffusion of water molecules in the air (vapor) onto the ice crystal surface where they are collected. Because water droplets are so much more numerous than the ice crystals due to their sheer abundance, the crystals are able to grow to hundreds of micrometers or millimeters in size at the expense of the water droplets by the Wegener–Bergeron–Findeisen process. The corresponding depletion of water vapor causes the ice crystals to grow at the droplets’ expense. These large crystals are an efficient source of precipitation, since they fall through the atmosphere due to their mass, and may collide and stick together in clusters, or aggregates. These aggregates are snowflakes, and are usually the type of ice particle that falls to the ground. Although the ice is clear, scattering of light by the crystal facets and hollows/imperfections mean that the crystals often appear white in color due to diffuse reflection of the whole spectrum of light by the small ice particles
Snow flurry, snow storm and blizzard describe snow events of progressively greater duration and intensity. A blizzard is a weather condition involving snow and has varying definitions in different parts of the world. In the United States, a blizzard occurs when two conditions are met for a period of three hours or more: A sustained wind or frequent gusts to 35 miles per hour (56 km/h), and sufficient snow in the air to reduce visibility to less than 0.4 kilometers (0.25 mi). In Canada and the United Kingdom, the criteria are similar. While heavy snowfall often occurs during blizzard conditions, falling snow is not a requirement, as blowing snow can create a ground blizzard.
Snowstorm intensity may be categorized by visibility and depth of accumulation. Snowfall’s intensity is determined by visibility, as follows:
Light: visibility greater than 1 kilometer (0.6 mi)
Moderate: visibility restrictions between 0.5 and 1 kilometer (0.3 and 0.6 mi)
Heavy: visibility is less than 0.5 kilometers (0.3 mi)
The International Classification for Seasonal Snow on the Ground defines “height of new snow” as the depth of freshly fallen snow, in centimeters as measured with a ruler, that accumulated on a snowboard during an observation period of 24 hours, or other observation interval. After the measurement, the snow is cleared from the board and the board is placed flush with the snow surface to provide an accurate measurement at the end of the next interval. Melting, compacting, blowing and drifting contribute to the difficulty of measuring snowfall.
Glaciers with their permanent snowpacks cover about 10% of the earth’s surface, while seasonal snow covers about nine percent, mostly in the Northern Hemisphere, where seasonal snow covers about 40 million square kilometres (15×106 sq mi), according to a 1987 estimate. A 2007 estimate of snow cover over the Northern Hemisphere suggested that, on average, snow cover ranges from a minimum extent of 2 million square kilometres (0.77×106 sq mi) each August to a maximum extent of 45 million square kilometres (17×106 sq mi) each January or nearly half of the land surface in that hemisphere. A study of Northern Hemisphere snow cover extent for the period 1972–2006 suggests a reduction of 0.5 million square kilometres (0.19×106 sq mi) over the 35-year period