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What Makes Snow Fall and Who Has the Worst Winters?

Is it possible for it to become too cold to snow? Nope! While this might be a common misconception, temperature does not in fact directly impact the rate of snowfall. However, while not entirely correct, there is a scientific reason behind why colder areas may receive less snow.

Let’s start by looking at snowfall levels in various states. While some might believe Alaska to be the state with the highest average snowfall per winter, it is in fact Vermont that receives the greatest annual snowfall at over 80 inches. Why is that? While Vermont is fairly northern, Maine and New Hampshire are clearly higher up areas when looking at a map of the United States, and Alaska is even farther north than the rest of the country, so attributing this snow surge to state placement does not work.

Instead snowfall rates rely on average temperature. It turns out the sweet spot for giant snow drops is anywhere from 15 degrees 32 degrees. This is because as the temperature drops, the air becomes too dry for snow. This is also why the consistency of snow varies greatly from packing snow to drier snow that seems to just blow around.

From the graphics below it becomes clear why Vermont dominates the snowfall spectrum. The January low is comfortably in the 10s, meaning there’s a high probability the temperature will reach at least 15 degrees. Furthermore, the monthly high is somewhere in the 30s. Because this is just the presumed monthly high and low it can be assumed that the actual temperature throughout the month will fall somewhere in between, this spread. Meaning there are many opportunities for giant snow drops.



So Vermont has the most brutal winter right? Wrong! While Vermont’s given the award for the snowiest winter, the most brutal winter would have to be awarded to North Dakota or Minnesota. Although snow can cause dangerous roadway conditions, these can be solved with adequate plowing systems.

img_1734The negative temperatures without windchill pose a much more dangerous threat as it can result in quick and lethal frostbite, and general immobility. In fact, in Minnesota there are rarely snow days, but cold days have become increasingly more common. What’s a cold day some might ask? It’s when it becomes so incredibly cold it’s dangerous to wait outside five minutes for the bus. Furthermore, at this point the gas in most motor vehicles might have frozen making it impossible to travel anywhere. Essentially, one becomes stuck in the refuge of their home.

So to wrap it up, snowfall is determined by the quality of the air, which is influenced by temperature, but having the most snow does not make a state’s winter the most brutal, and negative temperatures are incredibly dangerous. For those of you new to the cold please be safe, for those of you used to the cold don’t get overconfident with your ability to deal with it and forgo a coat. Curious to see how your state’s average snowfall? Don’t worry, I’ve made a handy dandy graphic depicting the various levels.


Image One . Image Two . Image Three and Four courtesy of author

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