NaNoWriMo 2009: Writing about snow

Back again, from the NaNoWriMo forums to copy my post from there to here. Today's subject: Snow! Tell me about snow! (<<----Link to NaNoWriMo Forum with complete list of questions that was asked.)

Outsiders, are usually taken by surprise, when they see their first Maine snow. They are rarely prepared for how deep it gets and how fast it falls. Most come here thinking they'll see an inch or two in December. They come early planning to spend a few weeks in October looking at fall foliage. They don't expect the first snowfall to hit in September or the fact that by October we may very well already have 4 or 5 feet of snow on the ground.

In February 2005 we got hit with a 9 foot snowfall, which fell in less than 3 hours.

Around here - doors open in not out, you keep your shovels indoors, you have a wood stove and case loads of candles, and you have a food supply of no less than 5 months worth of food on your selves at all times.

You plan on going weeks on end with no electricity, no roads, no contact with anyone, and this in a town with 12,000 people (only 3,000 of which live here in winter), 15 miles from a town with 64,000 people.

It shocks tourists when the reality hits them, that they could and often are, trapped in a place without electricity or phones (and forget about cell phones working - we didn't even get out first cell phone tower until 2007, and it's no where's in range of us. There's no cell phone reception here).

It shocks tourists when the reality hits them, that they could and often are, trapped in a place without electricity or phones.


Because snow is heavy and it topples 200 foot tall pine trees, across roads, lines, and rooftops. Very few people who come vacationing in Maine, stop the really think about just how harsh winter in Maine, really is.

Places that get a few inches of snow a year, are far different than places that get a few feet of snow a week. People that seeing only a dusting of snow (in Maine a dusting is any snowfall less than a foot deep), often view snow as fun. They look forward to it, as though it was a novelty. Maine gets snow 11 months of the year. In my town, Old Orchard Beach, the only month I have not personally seen snow was August.

In a place like this, we plan our entire year around the snow. We have to. It's a fact of life, that if you want to live in Maine year round you have to be prepared for snow at a moment's notice and without warning. (about two-thirds of the locals are not 12 month residents, living here only from May to October)

What does it feel like?

Depends on the weather.

If the temperature is warm (40F) than the snow is wet, slushy, and sticky. It's like a snow cone or slush puppy icy drink falling from the sky. This type of snow hits the ground in a watery mess and can cause major flooding of rivers, streams, brooks, creeks, etc. Along swamps and marshes, roads wash out.

This type of snowfall is very, very, very, very heavy - it topples pine trees, caves in roofs, collapsed roads, washes out bridges, and overall creates havoc. Warm wet slushy snow is the least welcomed of the snow falls. It's too heavy to shovel, too wet for snow-plows (I believe they are called snow throwers in the south, because that's what our Florida tourists always call them.), too slippery to walk in.

This type of snow is rarely seen in forested regions, and is most often seen in urban city regions, especially in places with lots of tall buildings (which give off heat that melts the snow as it falls). Rarely do these slushy storms ever get more than 6 inches tall and usually they melt away in a week or snow. They tend to fall in late spring (March - May here in Maine).

Snow that comes below 30F is soft and light and fluffy. It is called "Cold Snow" due to the fact that it only occurs when the temperatures are really, really, really cold. This is the best type of snow in every way. It does little if any damage, it's easy to shovel, it's easy to walk in, and the storm itself rarely is an issue.

This snow, can however, come in huge waves - because it is light and fluffy, it is easily picked up by high winds, causing "white out conditions". These storms can also sit in one spot and last for days on end. Around here, snow drifts are 10 or 12 feet tall, even if only one or two feet of snow fell. In mountain areas these drifts can reach in excess of 20 feet tall. Because the snow is so light weight it drifts like the sand dunes of Egypt and even when it is NOT snowing, you can have a white out, simple because high winds, blow the already fallen snow back up into the air.

This is the type of snow most often seen during a blizzard, and is more common in mountain regions, than in urban or coastal regions. It is rarely seen in cities, due to the buildings giving off so much heat. These storms can happen any time of the year, providing the temperature is cold enough (less than 30F or 0C).

In between these two temps comes what we call "snowman snow" - which is a cross between the wet slushy stuff and the light fluffy stuff. It's not as heavy as the slush type, but still heavy enough to be difficult to shovel.

It's light enough to drift, but because of it's sticky nature, it packs in tight and freezes into huge blocks of ice, which are sometimes impossible to shovel through. This is the snow that children look for, because it's the one that usually results in school closings, and it's also the ONLY type of snow in which you can build snowmen and snowballs, or go sledding. This type of snow, is often seen in blizzards and a single storm can dump 4 or 5 feet or more in just a couple of hours.

Than there is "black ice" a strange sort of snowfall that happens, when the temperature fluctuates during a storm. Usually black ice occurs when the temps are really cold and a lot of light fluffy snow is falling, than suddenly a warm front comes in during the storm, causing the snow to turn to rain. This warm front usually only lasts a matter of minutes - quickly followed by another blast of cold winds, and a sudden instant temperature drop falling to below zero, instantly freezing the rain, on top of the snow.

The end result has one of two effects, depending on how much snow fell before it started raining. If a lot of snow fell, say a foot or more, the end result it a hard crusty snow which cuts through flesh causing deep wounds and nasty gashes in hands, legs, and knees, should you fall down.

The problem is you are so cold that you don't start bleeding until you go indoors, and often, you do not know you have cut yourself until you go inside again, and suddenly feel a sharp piercing pain. If the ice on top of the snow is deep enough, you can walk on top of the snow, just as if you are walking on solid ground. Beware though should your foot find a thin patch and go through the ice, because it will slash your ankle and leg to ribbons, like razors. This snow is near impossible to shovel, and most locals, take to stomping down paths, instead of even trying to shovel it.

This type of black ice storm, takes months to melt, because the ice itself, can be up to 10 or 12 inches deep, due to it having soaked into the snow rather than melting the snow. This type of snow usually falls in late winter (December - January here in Maine)

The second form of black ice, is by far the most dangerous type of snow storm there is - death tolls stager after a black ice storm of this type. In this one, only an inch or so of snow fell, before the temp rose and rain took over. Because so little snow fell, usually all of it is melted away by the rain in a matter of minutes. Than the deep freeze blows over and freezes the ice, and this is where black ice gets its name from - because of the strange shift in temperatures, the rain freezes extremely fast into a mirror smooth finish, which is nearly invisible to the human eye. On trees, plants, and blades of grass it is called hoar-frost, but on tar roads, it is called black ice, because the roads appear just as black as ever, and drivers have no idea there is anything wrong with the roads, until they suddenly lose complete control of their car and are sent speeding faster and faster down the road until they finally come to an instant, and usually fatal halt, by hitting something.

Most black ice storms around here, see a dozen or more deaths per storm, always from car crashes. Also, walking on black ice roads and pathways in impossible unless you are wearing cleats. This type of black ice, usually melts away after a day or two of sunshine has beat down on it, leaving just as quickly as it arrived. We can see this type of snow during any of the 12 months of the year, here in Maine, but usually see in hit us every single day in February, every single year.

When black ice hits every day, day after day like that, it is then referred to as an Ice Storm. See Ice Storm 98 for more detailed info on the biggest storm to hit not only Maine, but most of NorthEast America:

What do you like to do in the snow?

Around here - it's not a question of what you LIKE to do in the snow, but rather, HOW can you do what you like to do in the snow.

Can you tell when it's about to start snowing--kind of like when it's about to rain?

The first thing you will notice before a snow storm - is dead silence. It is like every single bird suddenly dropped dead. They all go silent all at once, usually within an hour of the storm. That is quickly followed by a sharp, blast of cold wind, and the sky suddenly going completely grey, with huge low, foggy, silver grey clouds rolling in all around you. It's like a tornado or a hurricane is about to strike, but instead, it's a blizzard.

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