Brain Post: Why is Snow White?

Martin Kuprianowicz | | BrainsBrains
Ever ponder why snow is white? | Skier Jamie in the deep, white stuff near Lake Tahoe, CA this week. | Photo courtesy SnowBrains

Snow is made of water, which appears totally clear and not as any specific color—so why is snow white? The answer to this mysterious question is simpler than you may think and has to do with the science of how we percieve it.

Science tells us that snow is frozen water, or a bunch of individual ice crystal arranged together and that it’s not actually transparent—it’s translucent. What this means is that light photons don’t pass right through the material in a direct path but rather the material’s particles change the light’s direction, according to HowStuffWorks. The light photon’s path is changed and it exits the ice in a completely different direction than from which it entered.

This image shows a snowflake positioned under a microscope. | Photo courtesy YouTube

Those light photons are then scattered and bounced off the ice crystals in different directions. The reflected light bouncing off the ice crystals includes all colors on the visible light spectrum, which, combined together, look white because all colors of light added together always morph into white light.

Even though white isn’t the color we see entering into each individual ice crystal, it is the combination of the colors being bounced off the crystals that causes us to perceive them as white, which happens to be the color we see in snow. And yes, snow can look less than white or a different color altogether, like early in the morning or at sunset when the sun gives it that alpenglow aesthetic, when it’s shaded, or when the neighborhood dog turns it yellow, as the National Center for Atmospheric Research tells us.

This image shows alpenglow, which makes the snow appear red and pink rather than white. | Photo courtesy YouTube

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