By Anupum Pant
For the last several days, the national average temperature in the US plunged by a several notches when the country was invaded by the bitingly cold polar vortex winds from the arctic, not once, twice. For the second time, the eastern sea board experienced a lot of trouble. So much that the state of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina declared a state of emergency. People got trapped for hours, hundreds of accidents were reported and schools had to shut down.
Of course with the extremely cold winds came an abnormal amount of snow. And like always, even the seemingly harmless snow spurred a few theorists to spin out conspiracy theories. There were stories going viral that suggested that the crazy amounts of snow was actually “geo-engineered” and was being sent down by the government, stuffed with nano-bots to control the minds of people.
What backed them? The theories were backed with a claim that the material falling down from the sky was not actually snow and something else which did not melt when held against a flame. Videos showing people trying to melt the snowballs using a cigarette lighter went viral. In fact, the snow as it’d be expected to, wasn’t melting, it was collapsing. Like a Styrofoam dipped in acetone, or Styrofoam held against a flame would do, snow was mysteriously disappearing from around the flame. There was no dripping water. Moreover, the concave part of the snow was left with a black charred mark like plastic would!
Turns out the “mysterious material” was nothing more than normal snow. The lesser known fact that snow does not melt like we’d expect it to, made people believe in the weird theories.
Yes, snow does not melt like normal ice. I mean it does melt, but it leaves almost no dripping water when the rate of melting is slow. Now, why is that?
Since, snow is porous, it contains several little holes that can suck in the water just like a tissue paper with tiny holes is able to soak in water. This particular process soaking, where tiny solid holes suck liquid, is termed as capillary action and is the same action which enables plants to suck in water from the ground and send it to the higher parts without any motor attached.
The soaking in a snowball happens in real-time. As the water gets melted, it gets soaked instantly, there is no time for the water to drip. This explains the collapsing snow.
The “charred snow” is due to the unburnt carbon left from the fuel of the lighter, not because it is made of plastic. Astronomer and science writer Phil Plait explains it in the video below. [Video]