Why Does Snow Make the World So Quiet?
Every now and then, a fresh snowfall may be just the interlude the world needs. Mirelle/Shutterstock
Hush. It’s snowing outside.
At least, doesn’t it feel like that when snowflakes make their grand entrance, pirouetting from the sky like tiny, twirling ballerinas?
And we’re pressed up against windows, eyes wide open. Or outside, all giddy smiles with tongues eagerly outstretched.
Snowflakes look good. They even taste good. But they sound like … nothing.
So what gives? Does a good snowfall really take the whole world’s breath away?
The question was recently posed on Reddit, where opinions varied from the very sensible — “birds go inside where they have central heating and blankets” — to the very romantic — “snow falls slowly, creating relaxing, peaceful thoughts.”
Of course, the real reason for snow’s muting effect is grounded in physics — the shape and composition of the flakes themselves.
“Snow is going to be porous, and typically porous materials such as fibers and foams, and things of that sort, absorb sound pretty well,” David Herrin, a professor at the University of Kentucky’s College of Engineering, tells Accuweather.com.
Think of snow like egg cartons in a sound studio. As it falls, it lines the streets and sidewalks, covering cars and houses in a noise-muffling embrace.
Sound absorption, Herrin explains is is gauged on a scale from 0 to 1. Based on previous measurements, sound absorption for snow is in between 0.5 to 0.9, Herrin said.
“That implies that a good amount of sound is going to be absorbed,” he explains.
But what about the snow that hasn’t quite covered the ground yet? There’s no mistaking the icy interlude of a snow shower in progress. The thing is, falling flakes, like drops of rain, do make sound. But, as The Washington Post reports, the pitch is too high to be detected by the human ear. For animals that can hear snowfall, like wolves and bats and birds, it’s no symphony. They often retreat to shelter.
And for fish, as Lawrence Chum explains in the Post, snowfall sounds like a “freight train” as those tiny air-filled flakes smack into the water.
But in cities, after snowflakes cease to fall, winter returns to its usual regularly scheduled programming: The sound of cars mashing through gravelly slush, shovels unsheathed to gnaw noisily at pavement and the thump-thump-thump of tired boots on uncertain sidewalks.
“After a snow has gotten hard or icy, then a lot of the sound is going to bounce back or be reflected at that point,” Herring explains to Accuweather.
“It doesn’t seem as quiet outside in that case.”
No, just the usual soundtrack of winter misery.
But wait, is that a snowflake floating down from the heavens?
Shh… it’s another show.
Here comes the snow.
We don’t need a reason to savor it. Or to be inspired by it:
“As sound travels, sounds are muffled,” wrote one Redditor. “So the snow makes the world sounds a lot less like it’s kerfuffled.”