Cold facts and urban myths

By Mark Brazil | Jan 30, 2003


First of two parts Depending on where you live in Japan, you may only have experienced a brief flurry of snow this winter. Perhaps if you live in southwestern Honshu or Kyushu, you won’t have seen any at all, except on the TV weather maps. Conversely, though, if you live on the Sea of Japan coast, or call Tohoku or Hokkaido home — or indeed, if you have ventured into or through the archipelago’s lofty, mountainous spine, then you can’t have avoided the tremendous accumulation of snow that is the splendor of winter in this country.

From my eighth-floor window, I look out on a view whose horizon extends from the volcanoes south of Shiko- tsu-ko to the mountains behind Sapporo. As we left last summer behind, I watched the first powdering of white creep down from the very tops of the mountains, moving steadily lower as the late autumn progressed into winter. Now, everything is white, right up to my doorstep, and the trees are clad with the stuff. Even the sasa, the tough, wiry dwarf bamboo that makes Japanese woods so distinctive, has bowed beneath the weight of snow and disappeared from view, not to reappear until sometime in April when the thaw begins.

All this snow, thankfully, turns the drabness of concrete into the brilliance and beauty of a winter’s day.

As regular readers will no doubt know, I have a passion for snow. I love being out in it, hiking, tracking, cross-country skiing — or just sitting in an outdoor hot-spring pool and feeling the flakes landing softly on my skin like white butterflies.

However, as I know to my cost, the moment you mention a passion for snow at a party, that old urban myth about Eskimos and the “hundreds of words to do with snow” that they have is sure to surface.

But what do we mean by “words to do with snow?” After all, in English there’s hardly a shortage. Immediately springing to mind are: avalanche, blizzard, blowing snow, dusting, flurry, frost, hardpack, powder snow, sleet, slush, snowbank, snow cornice, snowman, snowflake and snowstorm — not exactly a dearth of snow words.

Far, far better linguists than I have pointed out that it is in fact more important to count root forms (technically speaking, lexemes) than the words derived from them, especially in Eskimo languages. Such languages are inflectionally so complex that each single noun root may apparently have up to 280 distinct inflected forms. Verb roots are worse. They may each have more than 1,000, and listing them all would inevitably put the number of snow words into orbit. Some of the words are delightful though, with qanisqineq, for example, meaning “snow floating on water.” It’s not that English is such an impoverished language that it can’t convey that notion, it’s just that it can’t do it as concisely as having a single word for such an evocative concept.

It is easy to regard snow as some kind of impediment to daily life, or as the stuff of winter fun and sports — but really, it is a fantastic world of its own, one that has spawned a whole branch of science, called snow ecology, that I find fascinating.

It’s only necessary to spend a day out in the snow to realize the incredible diversity that this supposedly singular element of water, in frozen form, offers. From a fine powder, falling like soft sugar, to thickly clumped wet flakes, there is an astonishing range of types. Then, after it has fallen and while it adheres to surfaces, it takes on different characteristics. It may lie soft as a fleece blanket, the surface kicking up like white dust as you walk over it. It may have frozen over in a weight-bearing crust, or be thick and viscous, clinging to your boots so much that even a short off-trail walk becomes a terrible labor.

Then over time, as it lies on the ground, snow compacts. Week after week, the additional pressure of newly fallen snow compresses previous falls beneath into layers that become denser, more ice-like and crystalline, so that by spring the dense layer may be firm enough to walk over while hardly sinking in at all.

From braving frigid air thick with falling snow in midwinter, by spring it can be a delight to walk in shorts and t-shirt across snowfields gleaming under a strong sun. By then, too, feathery clumps of falling snow (qanipalaat in one Eskimo language), are but a memory, and instead, words like snow crust (pukak) come into their own. Winter’s snowdrifts (apusiniq), though, linger in shadowed gullies and valleys, while elsewhere the vegetation begins to recover from its long winter under a heavy, cold, light-blocking blanket.

My first intimation that there might be more to snow than crystals, flakes, or powder came during a trip to the Antarctic Peninsula, when the only Eskimo word I knew was nunataq, meaning a mountain peak sticking up through a layer of accumulated glacial snow and ice. There it was summertime, penguins were in the middle of their breeding season and penguin chicks were pooping krill-pink goo across their colonies.

Then, as I walked across a snowfield to reach a particular Gentoo penguin colony, I only half took in the hint of color in the snow bank beside me, and subconsciously put it down to those pooping penguins. But on my return to the beach, I discovered that my footprints had left a bloodlike trail. Looking more carefully, though, I saw that the snow beneath my feet was stained neither with blood nor with penguin poop — but it most definitely was a faint red color. It was as if somehow the color was inside the snow.

An old Antarctica hand would have known immediately what it was, but for me it was a revelation — red snow, wow! Now I know it as “watermelon snow,” which I have seen since in long streaks across snowfields in various parts of the world. Back then, though, the very concept of colored snow was new to me, but somehow it rang bells — where had I heard of it before? Watch this space next week to learn more about the bizarre life forms that can lend a kaleidoscope of pigments to even the whitest snow.