Snow mania descends as cold weather bites

White stuff: Light diffused through billions of crystals gives snow its brilliant colour. © PA

Is it a form of madness to love snow? Britain is set to be colder than Moscow this week as the country dives into the chilliest December ever. Snow! Why is it a source of such joy for many?

It’s a snow day! You pull back the curtain to find the dull world transformed by sparkling snow. You wrap up and head out into the frosty air, plunging your boots into a crisp untouched winter wonderland.

This was the delight for many over the weekend, as the first snow came to parts of the UK. Blizzards also swept Europe, whilst the US braced for another winter storm, on top of mounting snow from last week. And in Scotland on Thursday night, the rare sound of thundersnow drove residents out of bed.

Snow mania is here. And for the two-thirds of the world’s population who have never seen it, this excitement over a bunch of ice crystals seems like collective madness. After all, snow is cold, wet and causes all kinds of disruption, from grounded flights to blocked roads and power cuts.

Not everyone is under its spell. If you live in Iceland or Greenland, or at the North Pole, you may be fed up of snow. And the arrival of General Winter in Russia is no cause for celebration. But in some parts of the world, snow is a rare and eagerly anticipated delight.

Where does this wonder come from? Whilst actual chionophobia is quite rare, a cultural fear of the white stuff goes back centuries. “What flies without wings, strikes without hand and sees without eyes?” was an old adage in the Alps, where people lived in fear of avalanches that could bury entire villages. In the Middle Ages, snow was blamed on witchcraft.

But snow is not just danger and uncertainty, writes author Marcus Sedgwick. It is also “excitement, joy, beauty, possibility, change,” all of which were depicted in The Hunters in the Snow by Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel in 1565, at the start of the Little Ice Age.

Snow, with its untouched sparkling colour, seems to represent purity and innocence, an invitation to return to simple pleasures. So for many, like journalist Samuel Ashworth, snow is mixed up with the “delirious, nose-smushed-to-the-window happiness” of childhood memories. Charles Dickens was born shortly before 1816, the Year Without Summer, and saw six white Christmases before he was nine, an upbringing that left its mark in the snowscapes of A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist.

Snow lovers are also enchanted by how it transforms the world. Overnight, the ugliest view is made pristine and beautiful under a coating of snow. And even more remarkably, it alters the way sound travels. Snow muffles noise, giving the world a soft dreamlike quality.

Even the disruption and inconvenience can be positive. Writer Helena Fitzgerald says it is like “divine permission to rest… an excuse to focus on beauty instead of productivity, adventure instead of achievement.”

According to the Norwegian psychologist, Kari Leibowitz, this is the approach that sees Scandanavians through long bleak winters – the concept of hygge. Don’t try to carry on as normal, but embrace the contrast. Get outside and play. Build a snowman. And when your toes and fingers are numb, come inside and warm them by the fire.

Is the love of snow a form of madness?

It’s snow fun

Some say yes, snow is horrible. It’s fine if your school closes and you can enjoy it, but even then crisp fallen snow turns to ugly brown slush very quickly. For the rest of us, it means miserable commutes to work, treacherous pavements for the elderly and disabled, biting cold winds and skyrocketing energy bills. It may look pretty on a Christmas card, but the real thing is just a nuisance.

Others say no, snow is something really special. Without at least a couple of snow days, it doesn’t feel like a proper winter. In our everyday lives we are always trying to use our time wisely, get somewhere or get something done. Snow forces us to slow down and makes us marvel at nature, as something as simple and as elegant as a snowflake transforms the world around us.

You Decide

  1. Does it snow regularly where you live?
  2. Snow has caused more misery than joy in human history. Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Watch the video about snowflakes and design your own snowflake decoration to hang in your window or on your Christmas tree.
  2. Billions of people have never seen snow. Write a diary entry of someone waking up to snow for the first time.

Some People Say...

“It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it.”

John Burroughs (1837 - 1921), American essayist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that every snowflake is unique. This is because of the random way water molecules attach to the six corners of the central hexagon, forming complex crystals. The American meteorologist Wilson Alwyn Bentley (1865 - 1931) was the first to take detailed photographs of snowflakes and captured over 5,000 in his lifetime. And although in 1988 the scientist Nancy Knight photographed two visually identical flakes, at a molecular level they were still fundamentally unique.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around forecasting. The Met Office describes snow as the most difficult weather to predict, due to the complexity of the calculations involved. Meteorologists predict the amount of water precipitation, but snow varies enormously in water content, from wet slush to dry powder. The quality of snow when it hits the ground depends on the temperature and humidity of the air it passes through as it falls, and a fraction of a degree in temperature can turn snow to rain.

Word Watch

Thundersnow
Just before five in the morning, residents heard two “extraordinarily loud” thunderclaps over Edinburgh and reported the sound of “explosions” to the police. It is very unusual for snow to fall during a thunderstorm.
Collective madness
UK and US media often refer to “mass hysteria” when snow disrupts ordinary life. In sociology and psychology, this terminology is more commonly used to refer to radical changes in collective behaviour caused by rumours and fear.
General Winter
The ferocious Russian winter is sometimes personified as a military general, owing to its role in defeating the invading armies of Napoleon (1812) and Hitler (1941).
Chionophobia
From the Greek word for snow, chion. This anxiety disorder is caused by accidents or traumatic childhood experiences involving snow and wintry conditions.
Entire villages
The worst incident was during the 1950 - 51 Winter of Terror, when 649 avalanches killed over 265 people on the Austro-Switzerland border, destroying many villages.
The Hunters in the Snow
A popular choice for Christmas cards, art historian Jonathan Jones writes that “it captured humanity's double relationship with winter: we fear it and we love it.”
Little Ice Age
A period of climate cooling between the 16th and 19th Centuries. Glaciers extended, “frost fairs” were held on the River Thames and the Norse colony in Greenland was forced to abandon their settlement.
Year Without Summer
The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia - the largest in human history - caused one of the coldest summers on record and caused massive food shortages across Europe and North America.
Hygge
The Danish word comes from the verb “to give courage, comfort, joy” and is sometimes translated as “coziness” in English. In recent years, the word has gained international popularity as a hashtag on social media.

Subjects

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