Let’s celebrate the gifts of winter


Let’s celebrate the gifts of winter

Photo Credit: Eyesplash

We Canadians have a special relationship with snow and ice. We ski in it, skate on it, play in it, shovel it, drive through it, sometimes even bicycle through it and suffer through it for many months of the year – some of us more than others, depending on what part of the country we call home. But how much do we know about it?

Do Inuit really have dozens of words for snow and ice? Are snowflakes always six-sided? Can two ever be alike? Why is snow white? Is it a mineral? What makes frozen water so important to us? Some of the answers are more complicated than you might imagine.

Even though English-speaking skiers and snowboarders use multiple adjectives to more accurately describe different types of snow, such as powder, corn and champagne, some say the claim of numerous Inuit words for snow and ice is a myth. But is it?

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, “the few basic words used by the Inuit to refer to different types of snow or ice do not translate everything they can say about these two natural elements.” In Inuktitut, words consist of a foundational element that provides basic meaning, along with other elements “to clarify and/or modify the basic meaning. New words can therefore easily be created from another term.” For example, the word siku refers to ice in general, and sikuaq (“small ice”) refers to “the first layer of thin ice that forms on puddles in the fall.” Sikuliaq (“made ice”) refers to “the new ice appearing on the sea or on rock surfaces.” Some words also have broader meanings, depending on the context. The word maujaq, for example, means “soft ground”, but when referring to snow, it means “the snow in which one sinks.”

So, “the total number of terms referring to the various aspects of snow and ice goes far beyond ten or a dozen,” allowing Inuit to “draw very subtle distinctions between a very high number of snow or ice types.”

When it accumulates on the ground, snow appears white because, unlike many natural materials, it reflects most light rather than absorbing it, and visible light is white. And although snowflakes form in near-infinite patterns and shapes depending on temperature, wind, humidity and even pollution, each single crystal is always hexagonal, or six-sided, because of the complex way water molecules bond. When a frozen droplet or crystal falls from a cloud, it grows as it absorbs and freezes water from the air around it, forming a six-sided prism. The almost infinite variables mean it’s unlikely, although not impossible, for two snowflakes to be exactly alike.

And yes, snow can be classified as a mineral. According to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, “A mineral is a naturally occurring homogeneous solid, inorganically formed, with a definite chemical composition and an ordered atomic arrangement.” Frozen water fits that description.

Snow and ice are important to life on Earth for many reasons. Both are part of the cryosphere, which includes “portions of the earth where water is in solid form, including snow cover, floating ice, glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, seasonally frozen ground and perennially frozen ground (permafrost),” according to the Snow and Ice Data Center. It covers 46 million square kilometres of the planet’s surface, mostly in the Northern Hemisphere, and helps regulate the planet’s surface temperature. Changes in the cryosphere can affect climate and water availability, with corresponding effects on everything from winter sports to agriculture.

By reflecting 80 to 90 per cent of incoming sunlight back into the atmosphere, snow cover cools the Earth. Losing that reflective protection, as is happening in the Arctic, upsets the energy balance and accelerates global warming. Snow also insulates parts of the Earth’s surface, holding heat in and keeping moisture from evaporating. When soil freezes, it prevents greenhouse gases like carbon and methane from escaping into the atmosphere. When snow melts, it fills rivers and lakes.

Instead of complaining about the dark and cold of winter, we should celebrate snow and ice. The cryosphere is an important piece of the intricate, interconnected puzzle that keeps us alive. So, build a snowperson, play some hockey, get out on the slopes and enjoy the gifts that winter brings.

By David Suzuki with contributions from Ian Hanington, Senior Editor 



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Why do snowflakes crystallize into such intricate structures?

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CLASSIC PHOTOMICROGRAPH This snowflake recorded by Wilson A. Bentley early in this century reveals the six fold symmetry and branching that characterizes these beautiful water crystals.Image: Photomicrograph by WILSON A. BENTLEY; SCHEMATIC BY CHARLES A. KNIGHT AND MICHAEL SHIBAO

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Charles A. Knight is a senior scientist in the Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Division of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Here is his explanation.

The dendritic snow crystal represented by the illustration at the right combines two qualities that give it its distinctive character: sixfold symmetry and an intricate, branched pattern. Snow crystals of this kind have come to symbolize snowfall because of their striking beauty and the fact that they grow large enough to be appreciated without magnification. But such flakes are not always seen in snowfall; smaller, unbranched crystals are common, as are crystals that have clumped together.

The two qualities of the snow crystal–branching and symmetry–can be explained by two different aspects of crystal growth. The branching involves the way in whichwater molecules in the air move toward the crystal; and the symmetry involves their final attachment to the crystal surface, causing the crystal to grow. Although many single snow crystals do not possess the intricate, branched shape, all have hexagonal symmetry.

  Inuit Words for Snow and Ice

It is often said that the INUIT have dozens of words to refer to SNOW and ICE.

Inuit Words for Snow and Ice

It is often said that the INUIT have dozens of words to refer to SNOWand ICE. Ontarian anthropologist John Steckley (in White Lies about the Inuit, 2008) noted that according to popular belief, in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit from Canada’s Eastern Arctic, the number of words for “snow” generally contains the digit 2, and that the total most often cited is 52 different terms. An oft-cited but never verified example of a presumed connection between language and life experience, this belief in a high number of words for “snow” and “ice” has been sharply criticized by a large number of linguists and anthropologists.

How exactly do things stand? In his dictionary of the Inuktitut dialect of Nunavik (Arctic Québec), the linguist and missionary Lucien Schneider (Ulirnaisugutiit: An Inuktitut-English Dictionary of Northern Quebec, Labrador and Eastern Arctic Dialects, 1985) cites a dozen basic words (those that are not derived from another word) referring to snow, and about ten words referring to ice. Examples include:
qanik snow falling
aputi snow on the ground
pukak crystalline snow on the ground
aniu snow used to make water
siku ice in general
nilak freshwater ice, for drinking
qinu slushy ice by the sea

This is a far cry from the 52 terms or more mentioned by some. Many will argue that French or English, as used in the cold regions of North America or Europe, have as many words as Inuktitut to speak about snow or ice. Nevertheless, this assertion is superficial, since the few basic words used by the Inuit to refer to different types of snow or ice do not translate everything they can say about these two natural elements. There are in fact several other ways to describe the various forms they can take.

In the Inuktitut of Nunavik, for instance, it is possible to call maujaq the snow in which one sinks. This is a general term that refers to any type of soft ground (mud, wetland, quicksand) but which, in winter, can only apply to a soft snow cover where the foot sinks. In the same way, the word illusaq (“what can become a house”) refers to any construction material (wood, stone, brick, etc.), but when an IGLOO is built, it applies precisely to snow that is rigid and maneuverable enough for erecting a semi-spherical house made of snow blocks.

Inuktitut is a language that is said to be agglutinative; its words generally comprise a base element (the radical), which provides the basic meaning, plus other elements (the affixes) added to clarify and/or modify the basic meaning. New words can therefore easily be created from another term. In the vocabulary related to snow, if the word qanik refers to falling snow, qanittaq (“added snow”) refers to freshly fallen snow. Another example is sitilluqaaq (“a recent solid mass”), which applies to a drift of hard snow that formed after a storm.

Similarly, words that speak about ice are not limited to the ten basic forms mentioned in Schneider’s dictionary. For instance, besides siku(“ice in general”), we find the terms sikuaq (“small ice”), which refers to a skim of ice, the first layer of thin ice that forms on puddles in the fall, or sikuliaq (“made ice”), the new ice appearing on the sea or on rock surfaces. We can also mention the igalaujait (“which look like windows”), rime frost that sticks to grasses and other plants.

Taking into account the base words (such as siku), derived terms (such as sikuliaq), descriptive names (such as sitilluqaq) and words with a broader meaning (such as maujaq), the total number of terms referring to the various aspects of snow and ice goes far beyond ten or a dozen. This is probably how we can measure the full extent of Inuit knowledge about those two elements: they are often able to draw very subtle distinctions between a very high number of snow or ice types. A few of the types are designated with simple words that only apply to these types. However, as a way of keeping the language efficient, instead of creating a new term each time one is needed, most often the Inuit use derivatives and descriptions, or limit the sense of more general words.

In short, no matter the type of term it uses to refer to a particular type of snow or ice, Inuktitut has a far superior ability to distinguish them than most languages. A last example: a recent lexicon of SEA ICEterminology in Nunavik (Appendix A of the collective work Siku: Knowing our Ice, 2008) comprises no fewer than 93 different words. These include general appellations such as siku, but also terms as specialized as qautsaulittuq, ice that breaks after its strength has been tested with a harpoon; kiviniq, a depression in shore ice caused by the weight of the water that passed over and accumulated on its surface during the tide; or iniruvik, ice that cracked because of tide changes and that the cold weather refroze.


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