For people who only see snow a few days a year, there is only one kind; soft, white and pretty. But for many nations, snow is something they experience for weeks or even months at a time. It is no surprise that inhabitants of Arctic and Nordic lands have led the way in researching and describing different types of snow.
It is often said that the language which has the most number of words to describe snow is that used by the Inuit (or Eskimo) peoples. However, many other languages, particularly the Scandinavian ones, can rival them in the number of descriptive words and phrases they have for snow. When snow is a frequent and normal part of life, it is understandable that people notice more about it and have distinguishing names for its multiplicity of forms.
In 1991, Anthony C. Woodbury, (a linguist at the University of Texas at Austin, USA) counted 15 unique words in the Inuit language to describe specific types of snow. He divided them into four main categories. The first category he defined was for words that described snow particles. The English equivalents of the five Inuit words in this category can be translated as snowflake, fine snow, drifting particles, clinging particles and frost.
The next category Woodbury defined was for words that related to fallen snow. The five English translations of the Inuit words in this category are: fallen snow on the ground; soft, deep fallen snow on the ground; fresh fallen snow on the ground; crust on fallen snow; fallen snow floating on water.
The third group Woodbury made was for Inuit words relating to snow formations. The three English phrases for these are snow bank, snow cornice and snow block.
The final category in Woodbury’s lexicon was for Inuit words relating to meteorological events. There were just two words in this category, and they translate as blizzard (or snowstorm) and severe blizzard. So, in summary, by Woodbury’s definitions there are 15 types of snow.
However, there is another way to define the number of different kinds of snow. That is to look at the differing construction of individual snowflakes. Snowflakes are crystalline structures, and they can be examined under a microscope. Each one is slightly different and their patterns are made up from complex geometric shapes.
Kenneth G. Libbrecht, Professor of Physics at Caltech University (California Institute of Technology), USA, has photographed some Californian snowflakes. He used a specialized snowflake photo-microscope and has captured the incredible diversity of snowflakes. His photographs illustrate that there may possibly be an infinite number of types of snow.
Using the most common geometric shapes found in snow, Prof. Libbrecht has named 35 different types of snowflake. These types include a simple prism, a solid column, hollow columns and capped columns. Some of the most complex types he has named include 12-branched stars, radiating dendrites, crossed needles and arrowhead twins. His list also includes crossed plates, double plates, fern-like stellar dendrites and simple needles.
These 35 named types are the most commonly found forms of snowflake, but there are hundreds, if not thousands, of more unusual ones.