When referring to snow on the ground, one often comes across the term “snowpack.” Just what is a snowpack? It refers to the snow that builds up on the ground over the course of a winter, eventually melting in the spring. In some places, snow only stays on the ground for a few hours or days after it snows, and a snowpack never accumulates. A lasting snowpack is common in areas where it stays cold enough that snow doesn’t melt faster than it accumulates.
High latitude places in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres usually develop a snowpack, as do high elevation areas (often mountains) where temperatures are cooler than they are closer to sea level. We use the plural term “snowpacks,” because there is variation in the amount, timing, and physical characteristics of lasting snow on the ground from place to place and year to year.
Read on to learn more about snowpacks, how they form, their characteristics, and what they can tell us.
How much snow?
Snowfall rates vary greatly, with records being a coveted prize. The 24-hour U.S. record is currently the 1.6 meters (63 inches) that fell in one day at Georgetown, Colorado in 1913. An interactive version of the map below and for individual states, as well as a list of records for every state and county and can be viewed on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Snowfall Extremes web page.
The number of times that it snows per winter also varies greatly from place to place. On average in Aspen, Colorado, it snows 26 times during the winter, or about every five days, while in other places, it might only snow two or three times per winter.
Seven distinct climate classes of snow are widely recognized, and these align well with the major ecoregions of the world, because temperature and precipitation also control what plants will grow in a given area.
The distribution of snow classes (left) of North America corresponds with the locations of its major ecological regions (right). Note the difference in typical snowpack depth (human silhouette for scale) between the tundra and maritime snow classes.
The moment snowflakes land on the ground and start to build a snowpack they begin to change. No longer in a super-moist environment like that of the clouds in which they formed, the crystals’ arms or branches break off, and they become more rounded, even at temperatures below freezing. At the same time, the force of gravity compacts the snow, making it more dense. Yet even when compacted, the snowpack remains more air than ice by volume.
Through the course of the winter, the snow pack builds up. It snows, then stops; the new layers settle and compact, the snow grains in each layer changing (metamorphism) with time. Then it snows again. Each layer preserves some characteristics that tell us about its deposition and post-deposition history. The sum of all the layers blankets the landscape and affects the ecosystem, the climate, and the hydrology (movement of water).
Depending on the local air temperature, the thickness of the snow pack, and the temperature of soil, the grains in the snow layers can either become faceted and ornate (shown with blue arrows below), or more and more rounded (shown with red arrows below).