We’ve all experienced that weird moment when we’re witness to something that’s so completely new and inexplicable that we wonder if we’re hallucinating or maybe someone is playing a trick on us.
Probably the first time I had this happen was way back in the 1970s. We were in the grips of one of the longest, coldest winters in memory here in the Mid-Ohio Valley. It had snowed in November, and, other than an extremely brief thaw that made the snow crust over, the temperatures did not leave the single digits for weeks at a time, often staying below zero for entire days and nights. The cold and wind were so pervasive that schools all over the area were closed for weeks on end. It was in the midst of this cold snap that I took our dog, a terrier named MacDougal, for a walk on the hill behind our house.
I still remember how biting the wind was, mainly because it was blowing the new snow that had settled on the old snow’s crust into my face as we walked up the hill. That’s when I saw them. They looked like something out of a science fiction movie. From the side, they looked like snow-covered logs, but from the end, they looked just like giant white doughnuts. I was so puzzled that I went and fetched my family. Neither my parents nor my siblings had ever seen anything like them. And remember, this was decades before the first person uttered, “I’ll just Google it.” We were so awed by this new thing that we took pictures and showed them around. But no one had any idea what this odd winter phenomenon might be.
Fast forward to present day, where no object, no matter how obscure, is beyond the reach of the interwebz. One quick search will show you exactly what I saw on that fateful day. According to New York Daily News Online, they are alternately known as snow rollers, snow bales, wind snowballs, and snow donuts. Another site, weather.about.com, lists the additional names snow pipes, snow onions (presumably because they are made up of several thin layers), and snow logs. But where do they come from? Apparently, their formation requires that a rather singular set of meteorological conditions occur in the right order.
First, we need a pretty decent snow. How much, you ask? Generally speaking, not that much, but enough to cover up the grass in a lawn or field. Next, the temperature needs to rise to around or even slightly above freezing just long enough to thaw the top layer of snow, but then the temperature must quickly drop again, fast enough that the water flash freezes, creating a crust on top of the snow pack. This often happens at dusk after a sunny day.
But that’s not all. The next thing that needs to happen is another light episode (an inch or, at most, two) of wet snow. It can’t be super cold powdery snow or it won’t hold together. And it can’t be too heavy, or it will break through the crust. Once all those things have taken place, all we need, according to foxnews.com, is wind that’s “strong (but not too strong).”
Much like the giant snowballs from cartoons that start as small objects but get bigger and bigger as they roll downhill, snow rollers start as tiny chunks of snow or ice that are pushed across the shallow layer of snow by wind and/or gravity, picking up layer after layer of snow until they get large enough that they eventually break through the icy crust or are just too heavy to be pushed and are set in place.
According to weather.about.com, not all snow rollers have holes in the middle, but most do. The hole is caused when the roller stops its journey and wind hollows out the center.
So, based on how many unusual conditions need to exist in tandem, you can no doubt see why snow rollers are such a rare occurrence. They are so odd, according to WTAP meteorologist Kirk Greenfield, that there is no official record of when and where they’ve occurred. He has been told that folks have seen them in Saint Mary’s and Athens, but was not told exactly when or where the sightings took place. The most recent confirmed sighting in the general vicinity was reported in Columbus by 10tv.com, the website for TV station WBNS. They reported in January of 2014 that several snow rollers had been seen in the outskirts of the city.
Much like unicorns or the Loch Ness Monster, snow rollers are one of those phenomena that are so rare that most have never actually seen them, though everyone seems to know someone who knows someone who claims their slightly crazy uncle swears he saw it once. Unlike Nessie, though, I’ve actually seen a snow roller. No really, I swear!
Featured photograph kindly provided by Angela Kelly
Second photo generously provided by Dan Kemper
Third photo kindly provided by Rick Riblett