or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Snow Wonder

When I woke up this morning, everything out the window seemed to be covered with a thin layer of brilliant white ice. A coating of ice isn't unusual in this climate, and it's really pretty.

When I got outside, I discovered that the truth was much more interesting than a miniature overnight ice storm. Somehow, some combination of moisture and temperature had conspired to cause snow crystals to form on every surface with available nucleation sites, and what's more, it had formed on the underside of surfaces: a chain-link fence had every diagonal stretch of wire covered with snow, but only underneath--the upper surfaces were bare. It wasn't ice: it was snow, delicate and fluffy--the touch of a finger or a mere breath would break it apart. It was as if the laws of physics had been upended for a night and the snow had been generated on the ground and fallen upwards, coating tree branches, street signs, and electrical wires with tiny flowerlike clusters of snowflakes. It was extraordinarily beautiful. (I'd never seen such a thing before because I've always lived in wet climates, and Moncton is often very dry in winter, which, I'm quite sure, was a major contributor to what I saw. Obviously there's a name for this phenomenon; it didn't happen for the first time in human history here in Moncton in 2008. But I couldn't find any reference to this sort of thing anywhere. Even Wikipedia was no help.)

The English word for snow is, well, "snow". The French word is "neige". If naturally had to wonder where the two words came from, being so different and all. (That's no surprise: the Romance languages and the Germanic languages often get their words from very different sources.) I knew that "snow" was part of the standard Germanic package of words, because the German word is "Schnee", and I also knew that the Italian word was "neve", so clearly there are just two different families at play. But where did the Romance version come from?

To my complete astonishment, the two branches of words come from the very same word, unalike though they seem. Naturally, they both spring from Indo-European; the IE word for snow was "sneigwh-", and doesn't that just look for all the world like "snow" and "neige" and "Schnee" mashed together?


Anonymous OmegaMom said...

Rime frost. Look up some pictures of rime frost. Looks light and lacy and fluffy like snow, but it's not.

Saturday, March 01, 2008 10:13:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

I think you may be right! The picture of soft rime on the Wikipedia page doesn't look like what I saw; the description mentions "ice needles and scales", but this was a snowy coating with little bouquet-like clusters of snowflakes thickly scattered over it.

Still, the description otherwise seems like a good candidate: it mentions "direct deposition", or formation on the surface, rather than something which landed there, which clearly is what happened, and the weather conditions seem extremely likely for this area. Thanks for the tip!

Sunday, March 02, 2008 2:05:00 AM  

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