Winter, A Wonderland For Weather
Everyone expects snow and ice, blizzards, and chill-to-the-bone winds in winter. More often than not we experience the season as a blur of grey and cold, eagerly awaiting the first few flowers of spring to pop up through the white and add some green to the drab.
There are, however, many wondrous things about winter weather that need a keen eye to see and appreciate. Though several of the entries on this list also require some luck, the very existence of these rarities is enough to prove that winter isn't the monochrome bleakness that it often seems. They are testament that even the dreariest backdrop can hold undiscovered beauty and inspire awe to the unsuspecting observer.
If you live in the midwestern United States, you may have seen snow rollers at some point in your life. Often found in open, flat areas like parks, snow rollers look as if dozen or hundreds of people started making snowmen and then just stopped.
In order for snow rollers to form, there must be very precise conditions.
1 - There needs to be a layer of soft, cold snow that will not stick to the roller. Snow that forms in very cold temperatures works perfectly here.
2 - The top layer of snow needs to be wet and clump-forming, near the melting point of ice.
3 - There needs to be enough wind to form the rolls, but it can't be strong enough to destroy them.
This combination of factors is actually more difficult to get together at the same time in the same place than it sounds, making snow rollers somewhat rare. The effect of waking up on a winter morning and seeing a nearby field filled with these, however, is awe-inspiring, and must have created wonderful stories before modern science could explain them.
Frost-steeped steps into an early winter field can reveal these delicate beauties, also known as rabbit frost, frost castles, and other names, depending on where in the world you are. Frost flowers are formed when the ground is not yet frozen and plants haven't frosted over for the winter. When temperatures freeze the sap inside the plant, tiny cracks in the stem form, forcing out water which freezes as it contacts the air. As it continues to be pushed out, it pressed the frozen portion further forward, creating a variety of shapes and designs, depending on where the ice is coming from.
Another similar phenomenon is needle ice, which is the same concept but it comes up from the ground in tightly-grouped needle-like formations.
Both frost flowers and needle ice are very delicate and melt or disintegrate quickly when touched or exposed to sunlight. Finding them is rare and they must be enjoyed visually, as any contact will likely obliterate them.
Forming under the same conditions as dust devils, snow devils are incredibly rare. There are two phenomena that can be called "snow devils" and they're somewhat different from one another.
A snow devil that forms like a dust devil - on a clear day when temperature fluctuations create a mild vortex - are more beautiful and look nearly the same as a dust devil, except the primary particulate is snow. They're harmless, generally, and don't last very long
Snowspouts are often referred to as snow devils as well, but are much, much more rare. These are essentially weak winter tornadoes that form during a snow squall. Very cold temperatures need to be present in the storm itself, and it must form over a lake that is significantly warmer than the overhead storm, creating fog or steam that is then rotated up on the powerful winds created by this interaction. These spouts can be more powerful than snow devils, and are often larger, but since they are so rare (only 6 total photos exist of this phenomena ever) very little is known about them.
Though you're more likely to witness a snow devil, they're rare enough and beautiful enough that you should count yourself lucky. It's not every day you see a tornado in the winter!
Spanish for "penitents", referring to the fact that this formation looks like people kneeling in penance, penitentes are jagged ice spikes that exist in high, dry, cold climates.
Penitentes are created when a snow bank begins to sublimate - that is, go straight from ice or snow to water vapor without melting. After this sublimation begins, chipping and erosion from wind occurs, making the sublimated areas larger, and creating chasms in the snow and ice. The result is an area of ice pillars standing clusters but without any other snow on the ground around them. This is due to the fact that the peaks themselves get very little solar energy but amplify the sun's rays that fall between them, making the ground snow melt significantly faster. This creates the sparseness of the scene - frozen ice towers astride barren, rocky ground.
The rarity of this type of phenomena is due primarily to where it has to occur. Though it's not rare in the mountains where penitentes form, they really can only happen in these areas and as such, most people will not get the opportunity to see them in person.
One of the most spectacular sights can lay eyes on in your lifetime is a parhelion of exceptional quality. Also known as "sun dogs", this is a type of atmospheric phenomena similar to a ring around the moon. Caused by ice crystals in a clear sky, the parhelion creates bright spots on either side of the sun, at around 22 degrees on the horizon. This effect makes it appear as if the sun is crowned by light or surrounded by a halo, and is particularly evident right at sunrise or sunset.
The ice crystals necessary for the formation of sun dogs act as prisms, refracting light and creating the "false suns" to the left and right of the actual sun.
Parhelion is a very popular phenomena in ancient history. Many paintings and books regarding the subject exist, and it's said that a particularly wondrous sun dog stopped Rene Descartes from his metaphysical studies and prompted him to immediately write about the natural world, a work that would eventually be titled simply, The World.
The world's weather has tons of surprises, no matter what the season. Winter offers many spectacular views and oddities, creating wonder that goes beyond the familiarity of Christmas-morning snow or the numinous feeling of a grey sky and a cold, still earth covered in ice after a blizzard. If you're lucky, you may find some of these or other rare winter weather phenomena near where you live. For others, you might have to take a small trip, but no matter where you live, there's surely some incredible winter wonders out there for you to find.