Essay: The White Stuff

In 2015–16, Elizabeth G Fagan wrote the monthly column “Green Talk” for the Ozaukee County News Graphic on behalf of Mequon Nature Preserve. Fagan has been professional writer for more than 30 years. See more “Green Talk” essays.


December 2015

Let it Snow on Cedars, 8x10, 16x20, by Elizabeth G Fagan, lakemichigansleftcoast.com
Let it Snow on Cedars, 8×10, 16×20, by Elizabeth G Fagan, lakemichigansleftcoast.com

Basking in the near-warmth of early December [2015], Ozaukeeans might wonder, “Where’s the white stuff?” Forecasters say the El Niño winter of 2015–16 will bring warmer-than-average temperatures, but precipitation will probably remain close to normal.

Whether it lightly powders our evergreens for Christmas or dumps heavily on our sidewalks in March, snow always starts the same way: as water vapor, ice crystals, and dust that collide in very cold clouds. Depending on air temperature, snowflakes take various shapes. The folk wisdom that no two snowflakes can be alike is almost true. It could happen, but the likelihood of two identical snowflakes forming within the lifetime of the universe is indistinguishable from zero.

Any heavy snowfall can be called a snowstorm. In a true blizzard, snow and wind combine to obscure visibility for several hours. Snow shower is a term for an intermittent snowfall, while flurry is used for very light, brief snowfalls. Thundersnow is a thunderstorm with snow instead of rain. While rare anywhere in the world, thundersnow is more common in our Great Lakes region, usually with lake-effect snow.

December 2015 Green Talk by Elizabeth Fagan
December 2015 Green Talk by Elizabeth Fagan

On the ground, snow texture ranges from the dry, light powder that skiers prefer to the heavy, wet slush that seems to fall on our driveways. Highly branched (dendritic) snow crystals create lower-density, “dry” snow. Columnar or plate-like crystals form dense, “wet” snow. With melting and refreezing cycles, even the most picturesque Christmas snowfall can turn front steps into icy hazard zones by New Year’s Eve.


Elizabeth G Fagan is a writer and artist who resides in southeastern Wisconsin—a place she calls Lake Michigan’s Left Coast. She’s endured the curse of being a writer since attending a private arts high school in Connecticut, where the bad habit was encouraged. She also became a photographer at that high school. She spent all the time she could in the school’s darkroom, creating black and white images from film. Alas, as a second bad habit acquired.

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