Book Review: Snow


Snow: A Scientific and Cultural Exploration
by Giles Whittell
256 pages
Expected publication date November 19, 2019, by Atria Books


Though much of the world’s population lives in areas that do not receive much, if any, natural snow, the human race has an obsession with the white stuff. We like to slide down it on skis and sleds. We rely upon it for water to drink and to irrigate our crops. We enjoy pictures of snow and the idea of it coating our homes in fluffy white in time for the holidays. But the science of snow– how it forms, why it is slippery, and even why no two snowflakes are ever identical– is not something we generally think about. In his new book Snow: A Scientific and Cultural Exploration, self-proclaimed snow addict Giles Whittell sets out to investigate the riddle of snow’s slipperiness, its uniqueness (both in the shape of its snowflakes and as a general phenomenon in space), and to investigate where in the world gets the most snow every year. Along the way, he discusses the greatest possible amount of snow that could fall in a single day, the notion that the worst snowstorm ever could still be ahead of us, and the future of snow in an era of climate change.

It would be easy to take a subject like snowflake formation and explain in dry terms rife with scientific jargon. It would also be easy to drone on and on about the worst snowstorms in recorded history, turning a series of disasters into a rambling list of dates and places that go in one ear and out the other. Or a passionate writer could blast the reader with the intensity of their love of the subject, turning away all but the most passionate readers. But like any good science writer, Whittell doesn’t let his passion for the subject override his sense and intrude on a good story. The tale of a freak snowstorm in the French Alps is the background for a story of millionaires complaining about the lack of good wine in the middle of a natural disaster. Explanations of the causes of avalanches are interspersed with the human cost of being caught in the midst them.

That’s not to say that Whittell skimps on information about snow in its many forms. The science of snow abounds but is balanced out by human stories that emphasize science. We learn how shifting air pressure systems from the Azores to Iceland affect winter train schedules in England, why Europe’s Alps have nothing on the Sierra Nevada range in California in terms of yearly snowfall, or why a mountain in Costa Rica might beat them all from year to year. All of these stories are told with straightforward prose that knows how to have a bit of fun.

“If rain is a rushed and irritable waiter nearing the end of his shift, an overnight fall of fern-like stellar dendrites is a stealth team of metteurs-en-scene who spread out through the banquet hall with dishes under silver domes which they remove with an understated flourish, whispering as one, ‘voilà!'”

Whittell also gives us a look at the lifestyles of the rich and famous, at least where they intersect with snow. There is the story of the Winter Olympics in Sochi that were nearly a disaster when snow failed to fall in area known more for its palm trees, and the cringe-worthy story of massive amounts of money flung at cable-car projects that would allow tourists to arrive in style at a few European ski resorts.

Sadly, though, Snow is not all about fun, games, and fluffy snowflakes. Whittell also speaks with meteorologists and climatologists regarding the future of snow itself, and the news isn’t good. Though warming air helps to create massive snowstorms, eventually that effect will end. The lower levels of the atmosphere will grow too warm for water to remain frozen, and our winter snows will turn to winter rains. If the effects of climate change are not stopped, we could all end up only dreaming of a white Christmas forevermore.

The sum total of Snow, though, is a celebration of this common but little understood phenomenon. While many dread the onset of winter, snow is a precious thing that is getting rarer, so if you live in a place lucky enough to see regular snowfall, Whittell’s advice is this: put on your coat, gloves, and hat, and then head outside to make the most of this delightful– if chilly– by-product of living on this marvelous planet.


Thank you to NetGalley and Atria Books for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Snow

  1. Pingback: Sunday Sum-Up, November 10, 2019 | Traveling in Books

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