From the eskimos, rumored to have dozens of words to describe snow (‘qanuk’ and ‘kanek’) to avalanche rescuers (‘sluff’ and ‘sastrugi’), there’s no lack of snow vocabulary out there, only a portion of which the average skier can make any sense of. Add skier talk to the list and you’ve got terms like ‘corduroy’, ‘glass’ and ‘mashed potatoes’ floating around. We wanted to get to the bottom of the snow boasting (and mudslinging) terms we hear all the time on the slopes: the skier next to you on the lift touting the “champagne powder” at their favorite resort, or slamming rival resorts for the “cement” they pawn off as powder.
At the core of this debate is something more scientific than slanderous; something known as snow density – the amount of precipitation in each flake. So what’s the difference between wet and dry snow, and why should you care? It’s a bit of a dense topic but I’ll try and keep it light (puns intended).
Wet snow simply has more moisture content than dry snow. This can easily be measured by the snow to liquid content – for every inch of snow that piles up, how many inches of liquid would it amount to if it melted? The average snow to liquid content is reported to be 10:1. Wet snow typically has a ratio between 10:1 and 5:1 (at a certain point it just becomes rain), while dry snow would has a ratio greater than 10:1, reaching as high as 30:1 in extreme cases.
There are a couple key factors that determine just how wet or dry your snow will come down:
- Temperature – There’s something called the Planetary Boundary Layer (PBL). It’s the lowest layer of the troposphere, where the snow crystals form. Generally, wet snow occurs when temperatures in the PBL are near freezing, whereas dry snow typically occurs when the temperatures are below freezing, due to the formation of dendrite crystals (aka snow flakes). Interestingly, at even lower temperatures, the crystals become dense again, and the snow gets heavier. Optimal conditions for light, fluffy powder? About 0 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a recent study.
- Moisture – Many references of champagne and cement are regionally focused, and to an extent, rightfully so. If a storm originates from a moisture-laden environment (i.e., an ocean), the snow will generally be heavier. Dry snow is more common inland, in drier climates like Utah and Colorado. That said, with moisture being only one factor in snow density, there are many exceptions to the rule and it is not unusual to get dry snow in the Pacific Northwest or in the Sierras.
- Wind – Research conducted at Alta found that wind at the top of the mountain actually plays a big role in snow density. Wind knocks the spaces out of the snow crystals, making the snow heavier and denser.
The consensus seems to be that light, fluffy snow makes for a better day of skiing for many valid reasons – you really feel like you’re floating on top of the snow, you’re less likely to catch a hard edge, and you can work your way down the mountain at a more rapid clip.
Here are a few other points to keep in mind before you cast your vote on snow density:
- Snowballs – hands down, wet snow takes the cake. Try and pack together a ball of fresh champagne powder and watch it decompose enroute to its target.
- Avalanche Risk – this one’s a draw. Dry avalanches move faster (speeds up to 80mph versus 10-40 mph with wet snow), and are more often triggered by humans. Nevertheless, both can be deadly or shut down the highway when you’re trying to get up to the mountains.
- Shoveling the Driveway – this prize goes to the dry stuff. There’s no time where the differences between wet and dry snow are more apparent than when you’ve got a mountain driveway to shovel. For every inch of the wet stuff shoveled, you could be lifting six times the weight of light, fluffy snow.
- Wind Drift – simply put, when the wind picks up, wet snow doesn’t blow the way dry snow does. If you’re a fair weather fan, keep in mind that even a nice day skiing in light powder can turn on you when it starts blowing.
- Skiing and Snowboarding – there’s no denying that wet snow means slower skiing. There’s a simple solution to get you back up to speed: upgrade to steeper slopes! The same goes for snowboarding, but lacking ski poles, wet snow means trudging down the catwalk at the end of the day to get to the base.
So what’s better, wet or dry snow? If you haven’t had the chance to experience both, make it a point to. If you have, what’s your take?