Legend has it that Eskimos have more than 100 words for snow. While the actual number is difficult to determine, because there are a number of distinct groups who are referred to as “Eskimos,” each with their own language, linguists think the number is probably closer to 50. That may still sound like a lot, until you realize that English has nearly as many. Here’s a look at just a few of the terms used in our language to refer to different types of snow, from basic snowflake shapes to complicated formations made by the wind:
Barchan: A horseshoe-shaped snowdrift.
Blizzard: A violent winter storm that combines subfreezing temperatures, strong winds, and snowfall. To officially qualify as a blizzard, a storm must reduce visibility to less than a quarter of a mile and last for at least three hours.
Corn: Coarse, granular wet snow formed by cycles of melting and refreezing.
Cornice: An overhanging accumulation of ice and wind-blown snow, such as might be found on a cliff face.
Column: A type of snowflake that is shaped like a six sided column.
Crust: A hard, frozen layer of snow over top of a softer, less-supportive layer.
Dendrite: A type of snowflake that has six points. This is the archetypal “snowflake” shape.
Finger drift: A narrow snowdrift across a roadway. So named because several of them together resemble the fingers on a hand.
Firn: Snow that is more than a year old, but that has not yet consolidated into ice.
Flurry: A brief snowfall that produces little to no accumulation.
Graupel: Also called snow pellets, graupel refers to round, opaque snowflakes. They form when regular snowflakes fall through ice-cold liquid clouds. Droplets from the clouds freeze onto the crystals, forming a solid mass. Graupel is similar to hail, but is smaller and less dense.
Ground blizzard: A windstorm that is not accompanied by snowfall, but which reduces visibility by lifting existing snow from the ground.
Hoarfrost: Frost that resembles spiky hairs. This type of frost gets its name from the word “hoar,” which means “ancient,” because it resembles an old man’s bushy, white beard. It happens when water vapor freezes instantly after coming into contact with a very cold surface. It occurs because the moisture in the air goes directly from vapor to solid, skipping the liquid phase. It tends to form on small surfaces, such as wires, tree branches, plant stems, and leaf edges, and sometimes over existing snowfall.
Lake-effect snow: Snow produced when icy winds move across a large body of warmer lake water. Common in the Great Lakes region of the U.S. and Canada.
Needle: A type of snowflake that is much longer than it is wide.
New snow: Recent snowfall in which individual ice crystals can still be seen.
Old snow: Snowpack in which individual snow crystals can no longer be recognized.
Penitents: Tall, thin, spikes of hardened snow. They can range from a few inches to a several feet in height.
Perennial snow: Snow that remains on the ground for more than a year.
Pillow drift: A wide, deep snowdrift across a roadway.
Polycrystal: A formation made up of several snowflakes that fuse into one massive flake.
Powder: New snow composed of loose, fresh crystals.
Rimed snow: Snowflakes coated in tiny frozen water droplets called rime.
Ripples: Marks on the surface of snow, similar to the ripples in sand, caused by wind.
Roller: A naturally occurring cylinder of snow formed by the wind.
Sastrugi: Irregular grooves and ridges in snow caused by the wind.
Seasonal snow: The amount of snow that accumulates during one season.
Sleet: Rain mixed with snow.
Slush: Partially melted snow on the ground.
Snirt: Snow mixed with dirt.
Snow bridge: An arch formed by snow and wind.
Snow drift: Snow on the ground that has been blown by the wind to a height greater than the actual amount of snow that has fallen.
Snow squall: A brief, intense snow shower that does not qualify as a blizzard due to its short duration.
Snowburst: An intense snow shower that produces a lot of accumulation in a short period of time.
Snowflake: A cluster of ice crystals that falls from a cloud.
Snowpack: Also called snow cover, this term refers to the total amount of all snow and ice on the ground, including both recent snowfall and previous snow and ice that have not melted.
Snowstorm: Any weather event that features large amounts of snowfall.
Sun cups: Shallow, bowl-shaped hollows formed by irregular patches of intense sunlight.