Ask Ellen: What is sugar snow?

Ask Ellen

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — When it comes to colloquial terms, it can sometimes be difficult to track down a factual basis for why a meteorological phenomenon gets a certain name. Viewer Naomi Bigelow wanted to know “what is sugar snow?”

I had a lot of fun with this one. Turns out there is a scientific answer as to what “sugar snow” is. Turns out “sugar snow” has nothing to do with the type of snow grain or appearance. Instead, it has to do with the timing the snow falls in the winter season and how much.

A true “sugar snow” has to do with the sugar maple trees, and how snow impacts sap. Scientists have discovered that a heavy snow in spring surrounding sugar maple trees can have a big impact on the sap production.

A sugar snow is a heavy, spring snow that insulates the bases of the sugar maple trees from the deep freeze of winter while simultaneously keeping the forest cool enough to prevent early leafing.

You see, a heavy snow helps to keep the ground from freezing hard too deep down into the soil. This allows the sugar maple trees to continue to suck up water from deep in the ground, where the permafrost hasn’t reached. This usually allows for a bigger sap production when the trees are tapped.

What some might be calling “sugar snow” may better be referred to as “powder.”

Skiier and snowboarders know this term well. Powder snow is very light and dry with very little water content. This makes for tiny grains of snow that can look like sugar and is excellent for winter sports.

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