15 Surprising Facts About Winter Weather

Not all snowflakes are as unique as you are.

Not all snowflakes are unique.
Not all snowflakes are unique. / Jude Evans/Moment/Getty Images

Whether you enjoy bundling up in your coziest gear or are already counting down the days until spring, here are 15 facts about winter weather to savor while you wait for the return of the sun.

1. It snows in places where you’d least expect it.

You wouldn’t be shocked to see snow on the ground in Siberia or Minnesota when traveling to those places during the winter months. But northern areas don’t have a monopoly on snowfall—the white stuff has been known to touch down everywhere from the Sahara Desert to Hawaii. Even the driest place on Earth isn’t immune: In 2011, the Atacama Desert in Chile received nearly 32 inches of snow thanks to a rare cold front from Antarctica.

2. Snowflakes come in all sizes.

Most snowflakes range from dime-size to the diameter of a human hair. But according to some apocryphal stories, they can grow much larger. Witnesses of a snowstorm in Fort Keogh, Montana, in 1887 claimed to see milk-pan sized crystals fall from the sky. That would make them the largest snowflakes ever spotted, at around 15 inches wide.

3. A little water adds up to a lot of snow.

The air doesn’t need to be super-moist to produce impressive amounts of snow. Unlike plain rainfall, a bank of fluffy snow contains lots of air that adds to its bulk. That’s why what would have been an inch of rain in the summer equals about 13 inches of average snow—or up to 50 inches of super-dry, ski-able powder—in the colder months.

4. You can hear thundersnow if the conditions are right.

If you’ve ever heard the unmistakable rumble of thunder in the middle of a snowstorm, that’s not your ears playing tricks on you. It’s likely thundersnow, a rare winter weather phenomenon that’s most common near lakes. When columns of warm air rise from the ground and form turbulent storm clouds in the sky in the winter, there’s potential for thundersnow. A few more factors are still necessary for it to occur—namely, that the air is warmer than the cloud cover above it, and that wind pushes the warm air upwards. Even then it’s entirely possible to miss thundersnow when it happens right over your head: Lightning is harder to see in the winter and the snow sometimes dampens the thunderous sound.

5. Snowflakes fall at a rate of 1 to 6 feet per second.

At least in the case of snowflakes with broad structures, which act like parachutes to slow the descent. Graupel, a form of pellet-like icy snow, travels to Earth at a much faster rate.

6. It doesn’t take long for temperatures to drop.

Weather records in Rapid City, South Dakota, show just how dramatically temperatures can plummet. November 10, 1911, started out at a pleasant 55°F at 6 a.m., then a wicked cold front brought the temperature down to 3°F by 8 a.m. The front caused outbreaks of violent tornadoes across the midwest. One of the largest drops over a short period of time took place on January 23-24, 1916, in Browning, Montana, where the mercury dove from 44°F to -56°F in less than 24 hours. In Fairfield, Montana, the temp on December 24, 1924, dropped from 63°F to -21°F in less than 12 hours.

7. Earth is closest to the sun in (the Northern Hemisphere’s) winter.

Every January (the winter season in the Northern Hemisphere), Earth reaches perihelion, the point in its orbit that’s nearest to the sun. Despite some common misconceptions, the seasonal drop in temperature has nothing to do with the distance of our planet to the sun. Instead, it relates to the direction Earth’s axis is tilting, which is why the two hemispheres experience winter at different times of the year.

8. More than 22 million tons of salt are used on U.S. roads each winter.

According to the Lake Champlain Sea Grant, that’s enough to fill a line of dump trucks extending 8333 miles.

9. The snowiest city on Earth is in Japan.

Aomori City in northern Japan receives more snowfall than any major city on the planet. Each year citizens are pummeled with 312 inches, or about 26 feet, of snow on average.

10. Sometimes snowballs form themselves.

Something strange happened in 2016 in northwest Siberia: Mysterious, giant snowballs began washing up on a beach along the Gulf of Ob. It turns out the ice orbs were formed naturally by the rolling motions of wind and water. You wouldn’t want to use this frozen ammunition in a snowball fight—some spheres reached nearly 3 feet in diameter

11. Wind chill is calculated using a precise formula.

When the meteorologist reports a “real feel” temperature of -10° outside, it may sound like they’re coming up with that number on the spot. But wind chill is actually calculated using a complicated equation combining temperature and wind speed. For math nerds who’d like to test it at home, the formula reads: Wind Chill = 35.74 + 0.6215T – 35.75(V^0.16) + 0.4275T(V^0.16).

12. Cities dispose of snow in creative ways.

When snow piles up too high for cities to manage, it’s usually hauled away to parking lots or other open spaces where it can sit until the weather warms up. During particularly snowy seasons, cities are sometimes forced to dump snow in the ocean. Some cities employ snow melters that use hot water to melt 30 to 50 tons of snow an hour. This method is quick but costly—a single machine can cost $200,000 and burn 60 gallons of fuel in an hour of use.

13. Wet snow is best for snowman-building.

Physics confirms what you’ve likely known since childhood: Snow on the wet or moist side is best for building your own backyard Frosty. One scientist pegs the perfect snow-to-water ratio at 5:1.

14. Snowflakes aren’t always unique.

Snow crystals usually form unique patterns, but there’s at least one instance of identical snowflakes in the record books. In 1988, two snowflakes collected from a Wisconsin storm were confirmed to be twins at an atmospheric research center in Colorado.

15. There’s a difference between freezing rain and sleet.

Freezing rain and sleet can both have scary effects on driving conditions, but their formations differ in some key ways. Both types of precipitation occur when rain formed in warm air in the sky passes through a layer of cold air near the ground. Thicker layers of cold air create sleet, a slushy form of water that’s semi-frozen by the time it reaches the Earth. Thinner layers don’t give rain enough time to freeze until it hits the surface of the ground—it then forms a thin coat of ice wherever it lands.

A version of this story was published in 2016; it has been updated for 2023.