snowman

February enjoys a reputation for the snowiest month of the year, though that’s not exactly true.

January averages more snow on the Fairbanks Museum weather records, with a 30-year average of 21.8 inches, and 20.4 inches over the entire 125 years of records. This compares with 18.2 inches for February over the past 30 years, and 19.0 inches through the entirety of the record. On the other hand, perceptions are shaped from memorable events, rather than some compilation of black-and-white numbers. In recent years, one of the more memorable storms was the St. Valentine’s Day Blizzard of 2007. Snowfall was rather uniform, with 20 to 25 inches covering nearly all of Caledonia County, including 21.3 inches in St. Johnsbury, the 4th greatest snowstorm on record. (image 1) But the higher elevations through the western part of the county, including the hills stretching from Peacham north through Danville and into Wheelock, Sutton, and Sheffield, collected 25 to 30 inches of snow, including a whopping 32 inches in Walden. Going back a few generations, one of the all-time great New England blizzards piled up more snowflakes than any other storm in St. Johnsbury’s history, with 33 inches in 24 hours on February 25th, 1969.

February Superlatives

Feb. 2015 – The second coldest February in the past 125 years, averaging 7.7 degrees, a full 10 degrees below average for the month, also represents only the second month in the Fairbanks records to remain below freezing for the entire month. Only January of 1977 matches this frigid distinction.

Feb. 16, 1943 – St. Johnsbury dropped to 43 below zero, tying it with December 30, 1933 for the coldest temperature recorded at the Fairbanks Museum. On that same morning, East Barnet, VT set the New England record for February’s coldest, at 46 below zero.

Feb. 17-23, 1981 – The warmest week known in February, as Spring arrived more than a month ahead of schedule. Daily highs were in the 50s, reaching 60 on the 20th, and 62 on the 21st, the warmest temperature recorded in February, until it soared to 65, also on the 21st, last year!

February’s Feature: Snow is not just frozen white stuff

Gazing out on a snowy landscape happens each and every February. People’s reactions and appreciation for this perennial view range from delight at King Winter’s mantle of white, to the weary disdain for at least another month, and more likely two, of a barren, bleak vista during which the Sun offers only modest reprieves from the depths of our annual snow and cold. Whether you enjoy the snow or not, most of us see it as a single, uniform material. However, for those who spend time on or in the snow, and for those fascinated by the wonders of winter, snow offers a wide variety of forms and consistencies, and goes through a number of changes through the course of a storm, as well as the duration of the winter.

Snow is not, as it often described, frozen water. That would do a disservice to the formation of snow, a process within the clouds that involves the transformation of water vapor – not water droplets – into the infinite crystalline forms we know as snow crystals. Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley spent his winters at his farm house in Jericho, VT photographing, categorizing, and contemplating these delicate structures, laying the foundation for scientists that followed to understand their formation and differences.

The six-sided patterns stem from the actual shape of the water molecule, and the specific ways that the molecules align. Yet the snowflakes we see falling are more often than not, conglomerations of several snow crystals. Once they land on the ground, or on top of the snow, or on anything, they often break, at least partially. Even so, if the snow crystals take the form of the six-pointed stellar or dendrite crystals and they fall with little wind, they retain enough of their shape to leave considerable space between the lattice work of ice. Such snow, described as “powder snow”, can feature as much as 40 inches of snow for just one inch of water.

Should the atmosphere own a colder, perhaps less moist profile, then the snow crystals might form a significantly different six-sided configuration, commonly known as plates, appearing as a thin hexagon, etched with an intriguing six-fold design, unique to each crystal. Unlike their lacey counterparts, plate crystals settle together in a much more dense composition, offering a more grainy, sugary quality, with a ratio closer to 10 inches of snow to 1 inch of water.

Other factors also contribute to the nature of the snow, including strong winds, easily breaking the crystal figurines into a dense, almost Styrofoam consistency, capable of curling into a static wave at the edges of snow drifts. The temperature’s influence is well known, altering a fluffy, powdery snow into an inviting material that clumps together into snowballs, and engineered into snowmen, snow forts, and whatever else the imagination creates.

To some of us, snow is just snow. To others, snow brings an assortment of winter wonders to enchant us through the winter season.