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New book explores the world of snow, with all its wonder and potential deadliness

  • Author: David James
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: April 11
  • Published April 11

Snow: A Scientific and Cultural Exploration

By Giles Whittell. Simon & Schuster. 256 pages, 2019. $25

’Snow: A Scientific and Cultural Exploration, ’ by Giles Whittell

Alaskans live with snow. In a state the size of a subcontinent, with a bewildering array of climates and ecosystems, from dense forests to treeless tundra, sea level to the continent’s highest point, urban centers to the remotest locales, our one common denominator is snow. We get a lot of it. And for the most part, we love it, even as we oftentimes curse it. As do people wherever it falls.

“Snow: A Scientific and Cultural Exploration” by British journalist Giles Whittell delves into how and why this is. A self-described snow enthusiast, Whittell has devoted much of his lifetime to seeking out and immersing himself in a weather phenomenon that, like all weather phenomena, can be in turn a source of riotous joy, a beautiful sight to behold, a nuisance, and a cause of horrifying death.

Billions of dollars are spent by adherents of snow sports so that they can cavort in the same conditions that pinned down the Donner Party in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1846, resulting in starvation and cannibalism. For thousands of years snow has provided wintertime transportation corridors that ease the movement of properly equipped people, yet it can also grind our most modern cities to a dead halt. Snow can determine the course of human events. Whittell notes that it’s quite likely that at least some those who crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia into North America had their way eased by snow that they could pull sled-loads of belongings over. Yet it was also snow that ambushed first Napoleon’s troops and then Hitler’s deep inside of Russia, ending the imperial dreams of two of history’s most wicked tyrants in a white snowscape turned red with blood.

“Snow costs nothing,” Whittell writes, “but a view from a one-acre lot on Aspen’s Red Mountain Road might cost $10 million. Snow falls silently, but clearing it away can make the sound of a jet engine. Snow turns whole mountains into playgrounds, but that’s not good enough for a certain kind of snowboarder...”

The amount of snow that falls in a single year is staggering to consider. Whittell consults Kenneth Libbrecht, former head of physics at the California Institute of Technology, and learns that a million billion snowflakes land on our planet every second of the year. Or 315 billion trillion annually. Or as Whittell puts it, “enough for 7 billion snowmen every ten minutes, even in July.”

Whittell’s book is an avalanche of such facts and anecdotes drawn from science, history, and his personal experiences. In the opening chapters he travels from the vastness of the universe itself, explaining the supreme unlikelihood of conditions occurring anywhere within it that could generate even a single snowflake, to the subatomic nature of how those flakes take shape. It’s a process, we are told, that remains unclear to scientists. But it is true that no two snowflakes have ever been or ever will be identical, and Whittell explains why this is.

Veering into the cultural side, Whittell plays art historian, guiding readers through the emergence of snow as a topic for European painters. Brueghel was the first of note to deploy it in his scenes. But it wasn’t popularized as a source of wonder and beauty until the 19th century, when Japanese paintings that portrayed snow as just such a thing became popular, influencing the likes of Monet.

Elsewhere, Whittell skewers the popularly held but utterly false belief that Inuit and Yupik peoples have hundreds of words for snow. They don’t, yet entire academic papers have been written claiming they do. And they’ve been produced by authors who did not once bother to ask the people in question.

Whittell also takes up the question of the Yeti, long known in Himalayan folklore. Many Europeans have claimed sightings as well, and looking for explanation, he consults scientists who postulate that it might be an as-yet undiscovered species of bear, perhaps related to polar bears.

But who knows?

What we do know is that some snow events are tragic. Whittell takes us to Iran, a country well acquainted with snow even though many in the West are unaware of this fact. In 1972, 20 feet fell during one storm and 4,000 people died. A cyclone originating in the tropical Bay of Bengal in 2014 drove its way in a northwesterly direction across the Indian subcontinent before meeting its match in the peaks of the Nepalese Himalayas. With no means of traversing them, the storm unleashed itself on the Annapurnas, creating avalanches that killed 47 trekkers and guides. In 1951, a 36-hour-long snowfall on St. Gotthard Pass in Switzerland built up enough snow in a brief enough time to create an avalanche that demolished the village of Airlo at the slope’s foot. Only because most residents had the foresight to evacuate was the final death count — ten — so low.

Whittell was on hand for the 2010 Snowmageddon that seized the eastern United States, and intersperses his memories of it with a discussion of why the rising number of major snow events is, counterintuitively, evidence of climate change. As air warms, it can hold more moisture, and as long as that air remains below freezing, that moisture is shed as snow. With planetary warming increasing atmospheric humidity, we’ll see an increase in the number of major snowstorms before around 2040, when average temperatures will have risen too far, and in many places that snow will turn to rain. In the meantime, of course, epic snowstorms will fuel the forever fact-free declarations of climate science deniers.

Whittell remains optimistic for the present, however. A skiing fanatic, he spends much of this book on the slopes, and there’s more happiness to be found here than gloom. He’s a wonderful guide to the one thing all Alaskans share: that white turf that falls from our sky and turns our entire state into a playground. We have a lot of it. Get out in it.