Skepticism

Snow Won’t Melt? Normalize Not Knowing!

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A whole bunch of the US just got hit with snow, so you know what that means: snow angels? No. Skiing? Nah. Weird conspiracy theories about the government? BINGO.

All over social media, people have been filming themselves trying and failing to melt snowballs with their lighters or matches. Instead of melting into a puddle, the snowballs appear to simply burn, which obviously means that, by Occam’s razor, the US government and/or Bill Gates created FAKE snow that looks exactly like REAL snow but made of…something other than water…and then dropped it from the skies in exactly the way snow usually falls. Congratulations Kyle, you’ve busted this whole thing wide open. I’m sure Bill Gates is terrified.

So clearly from my tone and because of, you know, my whole thing, you can probably tell that I don’t think this is fake snow that has been dropped on Texas for reasons. But why does a snowball seem to burn instead of melt? I’ll throw out the simplest answer I can before we get into what I really want to talk about, just to help those of you who need to answer these kinds of questions from your Q-Anon uncles or whatever at the dinner table: the black you see isn’t the snowball burning. It’s just soot that comes from the impurities that are coming from the lighter or matchstick, exactly what you’d see if you held a match under a piece of glass, or what you see if you have a glass votive holder. That’s not the glass burning, that’s soot. 

And why does the snowball not melt? There are several hypotheses, which may end up combining to cause what we see happening. For a start, some experts point out that applying a flame directly to frozen water can cause it to sublimate, which is when ice heats so rapidly that it skips the “water” stage and goes straight to the “steam” stage. But possibly more importantly, when a densely packed mound of snow heats up, even slowly, it doesn’t just liquify the way, say, an ice cube might. I’ve spent more than a decade living in places like Boston and Buffalo, NY, and the snow mounds can last for months even with warm weather. They don’t simply melt — first they turn to slush. The snow does melt but the water moves around within the mound. So instead of having “solid” snow here and liquid water here, the entire thing just gets uniformly slushy.

In fact, because I live in the Bay Area and I have no snow to show you, here’s my pal Phil “The Bad Astronomer” Plait (omg this is the second shout out I’ve given him this week, I’m going to start charging him for sponsorship) talking about this very topic when it first started popping up 7 years ago.

Kind of interesting, right? Maybe not as interesting as the idea that Bill Gates built snow-mimicking nanobots that are secretly injecting us with COVID vaccines when we make snowcones out of it but in a way it’s more interesting because, you know, it’s real.

But is the weirdness of this conspiracy theory enough to keep it going for seven years? Phil wrote “Like most ridiculous conspiracy theories, this one will die off, but another will soon take its place.” Whelp. If only that were true. The irony is that ignorance about snow and slush and soot is continuing to spread because in part we, as a society, are terrified of displaying ignorance.

Here’s the thing: when this “burning snowball” conspiracy theory started spreading, I rolled my eyes and moved on. But then I thought, hold on, what is actually happening there? Snow can’t burn! I thought that maybe it was due to impurities in the snow, but I wanted to know for sure so I Googled it. I found this article published a few days back that says that it’s sublimation, end of story. Oh, I thought, that’s interesting! My curiosity was sated.

But because I’m me, I kept clicking around until I eventually found Phil’s video from 2014, in which he points out the water moving around and turning the ball to slush. In a post he wrote to go with the video, he put in this edit: “*Another site tried to explain this away by saying the ice was sublimating, turning from a solid directly into a gas. This happens with dry ice, frozen carbon dioxide, but it seems clear to me that’s not what’s going on here, especially since you can actually see the snow soaking up the water.”

Huh! So it’s actually, to quote Ben Goldacre, a bit more complicated. The real answer for “why doesn’t a snowball melt the way we expect it to melt” is “I don’t know!” I hesitate to say “scientists don’t know” because I’m sure that somewhere out there there’s a consensus of physicists who can agree on whether the sublimation hypothesis, the slush hypothesis, or the “why not both” hypothesis is the most accurate. But there are still questions among scientists as to how snow melts. It’s an important and active field of study, in large part thanks to the melting ice in the Arctic that is both the cause and effect of much of our global climate change which, you know, is kind of why people in Texas are just hopping aboard the Evil Snow Conspiracy Theory.

But yeah, snowmelt models are still being made and adjusted and fine-tuned. Because researchers must, due to their occupation, be comfortable saying “I don’t know.” Because the next statement after “I don’t know” is “let’s find out.”

But unfortunately, a whole lot of people in our society are not comfortable saying “I don’t know.” It’s more rewarding — in terms of social acceptance and social media views and faves and retweets and whatnot — to say “I know.” And instead of “let’s find out,” the next statement is “I have secret information that no one else has, and here it is.” And we reward that.

We shouldn’t. We, as a society, need to reward not knowing. Ignorance can be corrected — it just requires that we first admit that we’re ignorant.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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One Comment

  1. When you referred to melting a snowball with a lighter or matchstick, I immediately thought, no way! Snowballs are big, lighters are small. Phil Plait used what I think must be a much more powerful heat source, a pan, and that was probably needed to fit it into a reasonable time.

    I did a back of the envelope calculation and assuming a snowball of 5x5x5 cm, and a lighter that emits 80 J/s (similar to a candle), it would take 26 seconds to melt–with the extremely optimistic assumption that 100% of the lighter’s heat goes into the snowball.

    What I learned while looking this up, is that the latent heat of melting is really high, and melting ice at 0 degrees takes as much heat as heating up water from 0 to 79 degrees Celsius. I mean, just imagine trying to bring water to boiling with a pocket lighter, you’d be waiting a long time.

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