How big would a snowman have to be to survive the summer?
February 6, 2014 6:11 PM   Subscribe

(This is from my 11 year old son, purely because he's curious and because we have 11' snowbanks this year). How big would a snowman have to be for at least some snow to survive to the next winter?

Assume a normal summer and winter at a location in Southern Ontario .

Actual location:

Simplifying assumptions welcome -- we're looking for a ballpark here. Effects of sun, wind, rain may or may not be taken into account.

We might turn this into a science fair project next year...
posted by sweet mister to Science & Nature (23 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I can say that the enormous snowmounds they build at my office complex will sometimes last until June. They are usually 20 feet high (or more? hard to tell!) by the end of winter.
posted by cabingirl at 6:22 PM on February 6, 2014

This might be a great question for "What If" as well, they're pretty good at this type of question...
posted by HuronBob at 6:24 PM on February 6, 2014 [12 favorites]

Seems like the right kind of question to submit to xkcd's what if.
posted by jeather at 6:25 PM on February 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

I would say, about the same height as the CN Tower, but by December it'd be a pile of slush the circumference of the SkyDome but not nearly as tall.
posted by Flashman at 6:28 PM on February 6, 2014

If it helps to form a comparison, the (almost) World's Largest Popsicle [NYT] was 35,000 pounds and 25 feet high, and it melted in an afternoon in New York (in June).
posted by Mchelly at 6:36 PM on February 6, 2014

You're looking to build a glacier, basically. The smallest glaciers are usually cirque glaciers, formed by snowfall accumulation in mountain valleys. I'm having a hard time finding minimum dimensions for small cirque glaciers, but I think you typically be in the range of hundreds of meters across and ~100 meters thick.

These form at altitude with annual average temperatures significantly lower than those of Southern Ontario. So unless you live in a mountain pass, you might need a snowman with the biggest sphere exceeding a km in diameter to survive in your neighborhood. And of course, all of that snow would collapse under its own weight (like a glacier).
posted by mr_roboto at 6:40 PM on February 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

I once made a trip up Mt. Rainier on the 4th of July, to Paradise Lodge. The snow was still nearly up to the 2nd floor windows of the lodge... I have no idea if this is anything but a point of reference, but I still have some fantastic memories of that trip (taken on the one weekend we were allowed to leave base from Ft. Lewis while doing Army basic training in 1971).
posted by HuronBob at 6:51 PM on February 6, 2014

Edmonton piles much of it's snow from clearing roads in a few areas. It took 5 months to melt
posted by Amity at 6:56 PM on February 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

There are a number of variables that would affect this. First, I'm supposing by "southern Ontario" that climate data for Toronto is adequate. Take a look at this climate chart for Toronto. First, you should notice that the highest temperatures occur in July -- BUT there is a large difference between the average temperature (which is an average through many years), and the "record" temp. There's a ~15C temp difference between these, which makes a humongous difference in terms of how quickly snow would melt. Also, because the air and ground are heating up until July, and cooling off after July, you have to worry about the snowman not only surviving until the highest temp, but also being large enough to sustain the continuous melting that would be occurring as the summer progresses. So many a snowman would survive until June (for ex above with the 20' snow banks), but it would have to be exponentially larger to survive throughout the sustained high temp. Also note that if you were to actually try this experiment, you would have to plan for the record highs rather than the average highs. The temperature doesn't (average) get below freezing again until December, so you'd expect melting to occur roughly until the temperature again drops below freezing.

Ok, next: sunlight is important. The best chance the snowman would have is in a continuously shaded place that doesn't store warmth. Maybe a cave opening that doesn't get direct sunlight. If the snowman is in the sun, it will get more and more direct sunlight until the summer solstice.

Third, it would have the best chance if it's set up in a way that captures whatever water melts. This video (debunking the "Georgia snow doesn't melt" thing) actually does a pretty good job showing how water absorbs into the snow for a while. The same principle applies to melting glaciers; glaciers are full of cracks, so the melted ice falls into the cracks. In the case of glaciers, the melted liquid actually re-solidifies frequently because when it goes into cracks, the ambient temperature is below freezing. So if you could maneuver a way to keep the water, and keep the whole thing cold, you could preserve its life.

So in terms of actual size... I have no idea. But pretty damn big.

One other thought: Ice Houses were buildings in Colonial times where they actually did store snow/ice all year, on occasion. They would bring in snow and ice, and layer it with insulation (straw/sawdust). Also these were generally underground buildings. Here's a quote of the requirements needed for the building for it to keep:
“The Door for entering this Ice house faces the north, a Trap Door is made in the middle of the Floor through which the Ice is put in and taken out. I find it best to fill with Ice which as it is put in should be broke into small pieces and pounded down with heavy Clubs or Battons such as Pavers use, if well beat it will after a while consolidate into one solid mass and require to be cut out with a Chizell or Axe. I tried Snow one year and lost it in June. The Ice keeps until October or November and I believe if the Hole was larger so as to hold more it would keep until Christmas.” (Robert Morris)
The link also notes an ice house in Virginia with a 16-foot-deep pit, where the ice would typically last until September/October. Virginia is a few degrees warmer than Toronto, as a rough estimate, so perhaps a well-insulated snowman in a 20' deep pit, with a north-facing door that was infrequently opened could last, provided the pit is not much bigger than the snowman to reduce warming.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:09 PM on February 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

In Minneapolis the Sears parking lot in St. Paul is famous for its huge snow piles. A few years ago after a winter of several heavy snows, the pile lasted until June 8th when the temp hit 103.

Judging by the shear size and mass of the snow there, I would have to guess as large as a small mountain.
posted by sanka at 7:37 PM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Ice Hotel in Quebec is made of some 500 tons of ice -- admittedly, in an open structure with interior spaces --and is gone by April each year.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:39 PM on February 6, 2014

Best answer: A few years ago, when we had a particularly bad winter, the snow pile near the Wilson TTC yard didn't actually melt over the summer. It was probably the height of a 2 story building or so.

It's hard to actually calculate this, because it's dependent on so many conditions, including the density of the snow, what the outside temperatures are like, how much direct sun it gets, how much it is pure snow vs. having other crap mixed in (a relatively small piece of metal will melt a hella path through a snowbank, for example) etc. I'm from Northern BC, and this is a picture of the house I grew up in. You can see the large snowbanks on each side of the house where the snow fell off the roof. By the end of the winter, those banks would typically be very near the roof itself -- about 16 feet high. The snow on the South side of the house would be gone usually by the middle of May. The snow on the North side of the house was rarely gone before the middle of June and occasionally lasted into July.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:39 PM on February 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

In Winnipeg, there are four snow disposal sites used to dump snow during the winters. By the end of the winter, they are tens of meters high and hundreds of meters long. Here's the smallest of the sites on Google Maps; here's a picture of the pile at its largest. The city has to spread the snow around in the summer to ensure that the whole thing melts before the next winter; even so, a small amount of snow lasts until September. Without the spreading, I wouldn't be surprised if this pile lasted until the first snow (which frequently comes as early as October in Winnipeg.)

This said, the snow is full of sand (originally spread on the roads for traction, and then plowed up and dumped on the pile). Once a certain amount of it melts, you end up with a layer of sand atop the snow, and it insulates the remaining snow & ice from the air. And, of course, Winnipeg winters are colder than Southern Ontario winters, so you'll get less melting/sublimation during the winter itself.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:20 PM on February 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ice Houses were buildings in Colonial times where they actually did store snow/ice all year, on occasion.

I grew up in a house with an ice house. It was more of a relic than a functional thing but you really could keep ice year round in it (we didn't, but I am interested in the so-called frozen water trade and have read up about it). In warmer places like VA this may have been outside but ours looked like this. Three stories tall, above ground. Packed in with no sunlight and a layer of insulation with very little surface area exposed, ice you cut out of the pond in wintertime would last all year. So I do not know a more specific answer than this, but I did go to an Ice Harvest Festival a few weeks ago where we got to cut real ice out of a real frozen lake (so hard!) and I bet the historical society of the town who put on this festival would have better information for you, if you want to do research.
posted by jessamyn at 9:28 PM on February 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think you could drastically improve things for the snowman by throwing blankets or some other kind of insulation over it, and positioning it in a place that was shady. I don't think that counts as cheating. Don't just put it around the top of the snowman; a layer of insulation between the snowman and the ground would be a huge help once things start warming up.

Incidentally, I believe this was also the plot point in an Encyclopedia Brown short story. The kids throw a blanket on a snowman to help it retain its shape so it can compete in a snowman building contest, when they get tricked into building it on the wrong day or the weather warms unexpectedly or something. If not EB, then a similar series, like Hawkeye Collins and Amy Adams.
posted by jsturgill at 11:30 PM on February 6, 2014

The people working on the Sochi Olympics have successfully stored large amounts of snow from last winter. They did this by putting it in vaults and wrapping it in isothermal fabric. So perhaps you could borrow their snow blankets to make some kind of outfit/bedding for your snowman and put him in a similar kind of place like a crypt or an old abandoned railway tunnel.

I'm not sure what you say when the vicar asks why there is a snowman in a duvet in her crypt.
posted by emilyw at 1:42 AM on February 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

The world's largest snowman (actually a snowwoman in this case) was built in Bethel, Maine in 2008. It was 122 feet tall.
Olympia weighed 13,000,000lbs, had two 5 foot wreaths for eyes, 16 skis for eyelashes, 5 red tires for lips, a 130 foot scarf, two 30 foot spruce trees for arms, three truck loader tires for buttons and 2,000 feet of rope hair.
You could probably contact the Bethel Chamber of Commerce and ask them how long it took to melt. I don't think it lasted the summer, so you're looking at something bigger than that to start with!
posted by mikepop at 5:44 AM on February 7, 2014

This John McPhee article from 1981 is about a physicist who makes "ice ponds" for cooling that last all year -- he found that slushy snow actually works better than ice due to the air pockets.
posted by miyabo at 5:44 AM on February 7, 2014

Ice Houses were buildings in Colonial times where they actually did store snow/ice all year, on occasion.

In ancient Isfahan they built high walls with shallow pools on the eastern side to shade them from the afternoon sun. In the winter it gets right about freezing, but they figured out that they could fill the shaded pools with water and get it to freeze over night, then start over in the morning. The ice was stored away in cellars and catacombs where it would remain even into the blistering heat of the Iranian summer. Thus the Iranian remark about the barbarism of Arabs: "while the Arab is dying of thirst, the dogs in Isfahan are lapping icewater."
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:44 AM on February 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

you end up with a layer of sand atop the snow, and it insulates the remaining snow & ice from the air.

Actually no - dark sand gets heated by the sun. Specks of sand on a glacier cause tiny pits to form.

I think you could drastically improve things for the snowman by throwing blankets or some other kind of insulation over it,

Use an aluminized mylar emergency blanket. It would reflect sunlight while also trapping a layer of insulating air around the snow.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:16 PM on February 7, 2014

Actually no - dark sand gets heated by the sun. Specks of sand on a glacier cause tiny pits to form.

It does certainly do this if the sand is just isolate specks. But sufficient amounts of sand get mixed into the snow in Winnipeg that by the time the top layers melt, the exposed surface is almost all sand. The picture in the news article I linked to shows the "snow pile" in April; the top layer is entirely sand, and at that point it acts more like an insulator.
posted by Johnny Assay at 2:39 PM on February 7, 2014

In 1992, I attended the World's Fair in Seville, Spain. I was living in Madrid at the time, and had friends in Seville, so I attended the fair at least 20 times through-out the course of that summer. It ran from April to October.

The country of Chile had one of the best exposition pavilions - partly because of the iceberg they brought to the fair. Yes, they brought an iceberg !!

They towed it at sea from the southern coast of Chile, across the Atlantic, and up the Guadalquivir River. Their pavilion was right by the river, and they beached it on the shore, right at the back of their pavilion area.

When it arrived in April (after melting considerably during its tran-Atlantic journey) it was still like 5 stories tall. Seville gets incredibly, brutally hot in the summer. Everyday over 100 degrees F. On hot days at the fair, you could sit by the iceberg, drink some Chilean wine, and escape the heat. The iceberg was one of the most popular spots at the fair among the locals.

By September, the last time I saw the Iceberg, it was still over 2 stories talls. I did not see it eventually end, but I heard it survived the entire winter, and did not completely melt away until the next summer. Keep in mind, Seville does not exactly freeze over in the Winter. It continued to melt away (more slowly) during the the Seville winter.
posted by Flood at 4:03 PM on February 11, 2014 [61 favorites]

Here are some images of the Chile pavilion iceberg.
posted by knapah at 9:35 AM on February 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

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