Rolling Rolling Rolling…

by Tina Manzer

It takes three balls to make a snowman

Snow scientists agree: spheres are best for constructing the human form out of snow. “Forming the balls and packing the snow together exerts pressure on the ice crystals so that some of them melt during construction,” writes Helen Thompson for Smithsonian. The extra water acts like glue, she explains, and helps the ice crystals stick together. 

The spherical shapes also help a snowman last longer – balls melt slower than other shapes because less area is exposed to the sunlight. 

In 2015, with the help of some experts, Thompson created what many consider to be the definitive (albeit short and simple) guide to building a snowman. Here are some of her tips, plus bonus ideas from Martha Stewart and a snow-packed glossary from The Farmers’ Almanac.

1. Start by choosing a flat surface upon which to build, but not your blacktop driveway and not in direct sun. An ideal spot would be one that you can see from inside your home; even better if people driving or walking by can enjoy your snowman, too.

2. Make sure the location is surrounded by packable – not powdery, not slushy – snow. “Snow can either be too wet or too dry,” points out one of Thompson’s experts, a professor of physical sciences at Rhode Island College named Daniel Snowman (not kidding). The ideal ratio is 5:1 snow to water.

Wet and moist snows fall at around 32˚F. “Dry” snow occurs when temperatures are far-below-freezing because more of the water is frozen into crystals.  

3. Pack a snowball, place it on the ground, and start rolling. “The correct rolling process is important,” advises the team at Midnight Moon vacation cabins in Big Bear Lake, California. “Don’t just push in one direction – you will never get a round shape. Instead, roll your ball one way then reverse direction and roll it another. Pack it down as you go.”

4. To stabilize your stack of spheres, the standard large-medium-small structure is the way to go. “Keeping the center of mass low is paramount in the construction of any snowman,” says Snowman. 

For an experiment in basic engineering principles, students at Bluefield State College in West Virginia built snowmen. The results of their research suggest that the optimal diameter ratio for the three balls is 3:2:1 from bottom to top. “This ratio keeps the base at a sufficient size to support the combined weight of the top two snowballs,” writes Thompson. “According to some accounts, inverted snowman construction is feasible, but probably unsustainable.”

Adds Snowman, “These are about as common as Sasquatch sightings.”

5. In terms of decorating your snowman, Martha Stewart recommends eschewing the scarf-nose-eyes-hat standard for something more creative. “Look to your interests and hobbies for ideating your snowman,” suggests one of her magazine articles. “Avid green thumbs might choose to make a snow garden bed filled with icy shrubs or nuanced topiaries. DIY enthusiasts might look to handy tools and hard hats.”

Use a pop of color for your snowman’s eyes, she adds. “Green or blue buttons will add realistic character. Bonus points if you make a family of snowmen with eye colors that match those of your own clan!”

Martha’s not done yet. “This might also be a chance to show off your knitting skills. A simple crocheted shawl in a color palette that speaks to your home’s façade would add a splash of vibrancy to the stark white background.”

Know Your Snow

A vocabulary list from

Barchan: A horseshoe-shaped snowdrift.

Corn Snow: Coarse, granular wet snow formed by cycles of melting and refreezing.

Dendrite: A type of snowflake that has six points, the archetypal “snowflake” shape.

Firn: Snow that is more than a year old, but that has not yet consolidated into ice.

Graupel: Also called snow pellets, graupel refers to round, opaque snowflakes that almost look like polystyrene pellets. They form when regular snowflakes fall through ice-cold liquid clouds.

Hoarfrost: Frost that resembles spiky hairs, like an old man’s bushy beard (“hoar” means “ancient”).

Needle: A type of snowflake that is much longer than it is wide.

Pillow drift: A wide, deep snowdrift across a roadway.

Sastrugi: Irregular grooves and ridges in snow caused by the wind.

Sun cups: Shallow bowl-shaped hollows formed by irregular patches of intense sunlight.

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