How to build the perfect snowman A snowman stands in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington (AP photo / Reuters)
How to build the perfect snowman
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Building the perfect snowman can be a challenge. Often snowmen can turn out a little lumpy or lopsided. They can quickly melt into unrecognizable shapes. When you decide to build one, it helps to have science on your side.

Understanding the physical properties of snow can help you figure out whether a snowman is even possible. Scientists classify snow based on its moisture content, or the amount of free water relative to ice crystals. Snow comes in five categories. It can be dry (zero percent water), moist (less than 3 percent), wet (3 to 8 percent), very wet (8 to 15 percent) and slush (more than 15 percent).

Moist to wet snow is ideal for snowman building, according to Jordy Hendrikx, a snow scientist at Montana State University. Dry snow is like a loose powder. Its particles don't stick together well. Slush is too fluid to hold a shape. "You can think of the free water as the glue.' You need enough to stick the crystals together, but not too much. Otherwise it won't form a solid snowman," says Hendrikx.

The air temperature during a snowstorm determines the amount of water in snow. Wet and moist snows fall at around 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures that are far below-freezing make for drier snow. More water particles freeze into crystals. "Years of experimentation and research with my kids reveal a snow-to-water equivalence of about 5:1 yields the snow ideal for building the perfect snowman," says Dan Snowman. He is a physicist at Rhode Island College in Providence.

This blend of moist or wet snow falls when it is a degree or two above or below freezing. The blizzards in the Northeast this winter would make moist or wet snow.

Dry powder is more likely during frigid conditions. Powder offers a soft, smooth ride that is ideal for skiing. But it's not for building snowmen.

Once the snow is on the ground, it's time to build your snowman. Spheres are the best building blocks. Forming snowballs and packing the snow together exerts pressure on the ice crystals. The pressure makes some crystals melt during construction. "After melting, the water will crystallize once again, binding together the snowball," Snowman notes.

To keep the spheres from toppling, stack them in the usual large to medium to small structure. "Keeping the snowman's center of mass low is paramount in the construction of any snowman," says Snowman. The center of mass refers to the point in any object where its mass is concentrated. The closer that point is to the ground, the less likely a vertical object is to fall over.

Students at Bluefield State College in West Virginia see snowman-building as a way to teach basic engineering principles. They say the optimal diameter ratio for the snowballs is 3:2:1 from bottom to top. This ratio keeps the base large enough to support the combined weight of the top two snowballs. And don't build your snowman too big. The water content of the snow may limit the size of the spheres.

Building your snowman in spheres can also help it last longer. Because the shape minimizes the surface area exposed to rising temperatures, it slows down melting. Unfortunately, melting is inevitable as temperatures rise. Thanks to Frozen, we all know what happens to snowmen in summer.

Critical thinking challenge: Explain how moisture in snow acts like "glue," and explain why too much or too little doesn't work.

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COMMENTS (153)
  • dylanswerdlow1
    2/27/2015 - 10:12 a.m.

    The article I read was about how to build the perfect snowman. Most snowmen that are made come out lumpy, each ball is a different size, and just not perfect. Scientists have said you have to understand the physical properties of snow in order to make the perfect snowman. It's best to make snowmen with powdered snow because slush does not stick together. The perfect snowman is said to have no lumps, perfect sized balls of snow, and stands up straight. Hopefully I'll be able to make the perfect snowman one day. This article was very interesting to read.

  • MichaelaJ-3
    2/27/2015 - 10:36 a.m.

    Snow can be dry (zero percent water), moist (less than 3 percent), wet (3 to 8 percent), very wet (8 to 15 percent) and slush (more than 15 percent). It is better if it is moist or wet because it has just enough water to old/ stick together and not too much that it can't hold a shape!! I think it is crazy that a scientist can figure out how to make one of the most fun things to do when it snows.

    • JB000blue
      2/27/2015 - 01:03 p.m.

      There is not even a perfict snow man and its just a kids imagination which is all that matters. And that is just amazing too.

  • MichaelaJ-3
    2/27/2015 - 10:36 a.m.

    Snow can be dry (zero percent water), moist (less than 3 percent), wet (3 to 8 percent), very wet (8 to 15 percent) and slush (more than 15 percent). It is better if it is moist or wet because it has just enough water to old/ stick together and not too much that it can't hold a shape!! I think it is crazy that a scientist can figure out how to make one of the most fun things to do when it snows.

  • LaurenT-1
    2/27/2015 - 10:49 a.m.

    Snowmen can be very difficult to build, so knowing the science behind the snow you are working with can be helpful. Snow that is moist to wet is the best type for making snow (not too dry). The ratio of weight between the 3 levels are 3:2:1.
    This article makes me really sad that we don't live in snow so I can't try this out.

  • andrewh-Weh
    2/27/2015 - 11:11 a.m.

    How is this snowman so good. The states that having very wet snow is good for a snowman. The text also states to keep the snowmans center mass. I am going to try this right now and it should work.

    • danielh-DiB
      3/02/2015 - 10:21 a.m.

      With really wet snow it will fall apart and not be stable. It Can't be too dry because it will be too powdery.I once made a big snow man and it wasn't too wet and now powdery at all

  • john12015
    2/27/2015 - 11:27 a.m.

    I thought it was cool that there was different types of snow. I wish i would of know that so when i spent like ten minutes trying to form just the bottom of one. if i had one more snow day,i would spend all day outside building snow men.

  • madisong-Sch
    2/27/2015 - 11:31 a.m.

    I hope this article help when I build a snowman. The article give good information on the types of snow and what weather.
    Adjectives
    1. Perfect Snowman
    2.Dry snow is like loose powder
    3. Wet and moist snow

    Mood
    1.Jubilant
    2.Happy
    3.Mellow

    Tone
    1. jovial
    2. happy
    3.calm

  • paigemc-Sch
    2/27/2015 - 11:31 a.m.

    This article was really interesting and good information about how to build a snowman. It says how water is like glow and if you don't have any water in the snow or its very dry then you can't build a snowman but if its like slush then you can't build a snowman either so you have to have it just right.

    Adjectives
    'Perfect' snowman
    'Dry' Snow
    'Wet and Moist' snow
    Mood
    peaceful
    relaxed
    cold
    Tone
    calm
    happy
    joyful

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