Why the Blizzard of 2013 Is Different


Everyone has heard the old saying that the Eskimos, or Inuit, have umpteen different words for snow. The idea is that they live closer to their environment than we do, and thus have not lost the ability to differentiate between the multitudinous forms freezing precipitation can take. Where we see snow, the Inuit see subtleties. 

This charming legend, like most charming legends, is false. In fact, that Inuit have just about as many words for snow as do English speakers; they just tend to combine their terms in certain ways to add specificity to their meteorological conditions.

As Warden Mike Bowditch notes in Bad Little Falls, a few degrees in temperature can make a huge difference in what sorts of snowflakes form:

Warmer weather means wetter snow. Wet snow is heavy; its weight shatters tree branches. It clings to power lines and brings them crashing down. On the road it turns to slush and sends tractionless cars skipping into ditches. Wet snow melts quickly in your hair and runs down the back of your neck. It follows you into your house by riding in the treads of your boots and leaves puddles to mark its passage. I know this because, like the Inuit, I live mostly outdoors in the winter. 

Because of the low-pressure front pushing down from Canada, the snow that was falling outside my trailer was not wet but, in fact, very dry. The wind whipped it around like white sand in a white desert, forming metamorphic dunes and ridges that changed shape while I watched. Dry snow carries its own dangers. It clings to nothing, not even itself, and is so light it can be stirred by the faintest breeze. Weightless, it resists plowing and shoveling. It covers your tracks in the woods, making it easier for you to get lost, and because it is the harbinger of sub-zero temperatures, it makes losing your way a potentially life-threatening mistake. Dry snow can turn a black night blindingly white.

What northern New England is experiencing is very dry snow combined with high winds, which is why tonight is going to be a very white night.