Magazine article American Scientist

Snow Science

Magazine article American Scientist

Snow Science

Article excerpt

Snow Science SECRETS OF THE GREATEST SNOW ON EARTH: Weather, Climate Change, and Finding Deep Powder in Utah's Wasatch Mountains and Around the World. Jim Steenburgh. ix + 186 pp. Utah University State Press, 2014. $21.95.

Jim Steenburgh encountered plenty of snow during his childhood in upstate New York, but once he finísned high school and hit the sparkling, powdery slopes of the Northwest, he never looked back. His enthusiasm for skiing led him to study atmospheric sciences. He specialized in mountain meteorology, earning a doctorate and landing his dream job in 1995 at the University of Utah, where he has been a professor ever since.

Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth exuberantly imites Steenburgh's dual passions for meteorology and downhill skiing. Although he still spends most of his free time skiing, his interest in snow extends beyond its role as a necessary substrate for his favorite sport. As a scientist, he feels compelled to learn all there is to know about the stuff: what snow is composed of, how it takes so many different forms, and why the outcome of any given snowstorm can be so difficult to predict. (One key piece of information he shares: Snowflakes are not frozen raindrops-that would be sleet. Snowflakes are their own distinct type of precipitation, formed when water vapor skips the liquid phase and condenses directly into ice.) Fortunately for the reader, Steenburgh is not just an enthusiast; he is also a bom teacher. As he explores he explains, and his zest for the subject is contagious.

One of the author's aims, he says, was to investigate the claim that has been featured on Utah license plates for 30 years: "Greatest Snow on Earth." To settle the question, he surveys the world's major skiing regions, comparing the merits of each. Tellingly, this exploration is contained within a single chapter, titled "Beyond Utah." Judging by the swiftness of the journey-the author bounds across both the eastern and western coastal ranges of North America, the Rockies, the Tetons, the Andes, the European Alps, New Zealand, and two islands of Japan, all in just over 20 pages-the reader may conclude that Steenburgh's heart remains in Utah. He allows that Andermatt, Switzerland, "has one of the more reliable snow climates in Europe." In Argentina, Las Leñas "has the best powder reputation in the Southern Hemisphere" but "still falls short of the Cottonwood Canyons in terms of quantity and consistency." Even the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, whose mountains receive an average snowfall of 480 inches per year, is only "perhaps [emphasis added] the strongest contender to Utah's claim."

The chapters that follow see the author back on the home slopes, where he resumes his informative (and informal) role as the Snow Scientist. In a chapter investigating how snowflakes are made, Steenburgh describes why every detail of the weather has its significance: "The shape, size, and composition of these snowflakes determine if you are skiing hero snow, crud, or concrete."

He explains the five-step chemical process that transforms water vapor from the atmosphere into snow and the ways that variables such as altitude, wind speed, saturation, and even the amount of pollution in the air can act on this process to yield snowflakes with very different physical properties. …

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