Winter Landscapes

Do you remember the excitement you felt as a child when you woke to see the first snowfall had changed the landscape overnight? As adults we tend to groan as we look out the window and contemplate shoveling, scraping off the car, and the extra twenty minutes it will take to get just about anywhere. While it may be hard for us to remember that thrill, if you interview any child under the age of fourteen, you’ll find that solid precipitation well outweighs liquid on the fun scale. My own son tried to sled on the light dusting we got last week, and though I’m sure he tried to hide it from me, I’d guess he ate a few bites, too (which, by the way, scientists say is generally safe to do if it’s freshly fallen snow – but not too fresh. Find out more from

When snow is all you see, you accutley notice all the details and its varied textures, consistencies, and uses. Some say that’s why the Inuit people had over 100 words for snow. While this notion was debated for a time, linguists and anthropologists now agree that Inuit and Yupik dialects use many more words to describe distinct types of snow than English. Washington Post Health & Science writer David Robson contends that “this kind of linguistic exuberance should come as no surprise…since languages evolve to suit the ideas and needs that are most crucial to the lives of their speakers.” Here are a few examples:

  • “matsaaruti” = wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners
  • “pukak” = crystalline powder snow that looks like salt
  • “aqilokoq” = softly falling snow
  • “piegnartoq” =  snow that is good for driving a sled

Read more of the Washington Post article here.

Nature Net News Flashback from 2009:

They say no two snowflakes are alike. Scientist and photographer Wilson Bentley spent most winters of his life photographing snowflakes and never found two exactly alike. Why? For one, there are several different snowflake shapes – not only the well-known six-sided star shape (or dendrite) but also plates, columns, needles, and others. Each starts as a six-sided snow crystal: water vapor condensed directly into ice. As the snow crystal grows, more water vapor condensing to the original crystal, there is an infinite possibility of branching and expansion. The shape a snowflake eventually takes depends on how the crystal bumps into more water vapor and the rate at which this happens – all of which is affected by temperature and humidity. Though some argue the very simplest snow crystal plates are alike, the possibility of any one complex snowflake developing exactly like another is statistically unlikely.
Why the six sides? The very essence of snow is water – two hydrogen molecules bonded to one oxygen, forming an equal sided triangle. When water crystallizes, turning to ice, three of these triangles bond, forming a hexagon. It is from this molecular shape that snow crystals form. All growth and change occurs while maintaining this original structure. Find out more on this topic and see a diagram at
Learn the answers to common questions about snow from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

2017 Update: There ARE two snowflakes alike – grown in a lab, of course. Check out this mesmerizing video from KQED Science and PBS Digital Studios:

I also recommend this slightly more snarky but equally educational story of “Snowflake” Bentley and the science of snowflakes from

Did you know…

“Graupel” is the name for snow crystals soddened with frozen water droplets. Not technically snowflakes (because the six-sided snow crystal is damaged), graupel looks like little balls of snow as it falls. You’ve never heard meteorologists predicating graupel-fall because it’s considered snow precipitation. Find out more here.

To Do This Month:

Check out this update to last month’s post about owls, which included news that researchers are now considering the silent flight of owls as inspiration for creating silent turbine and airplane engine blades. Find out how researchers used owls, penguins, and king fishers as inspiration for the remodel of the Shinkansen bullet train in Japan by watching this video, which is featured on one of my new favorite websites, The Kids Should See This:

Mark your calendar for upcoming winter celebrations: Frozen Assets hosted by the Clean Lakes Alliance and Madison Winter Fest will both take place the first weekend of February, 2018.

Join the Christmas Bird Count now through January 5th and enjoy the winter landscape that is beginning to take shape.

Bring the kids down to Henry Vilas Zoo for Winter Zoo Camp December 27th-29th. It’s time to leave your den and come enjoy the zoo. All of the programs include a mix of time spent exploring the outdoors and indoor environments. Camps vary by day, but are built around a theme for the week. All of the camps include unique animal experiences that you can’t find anywhere else in town!

Ring in the new year with your little one’s (a little early) at Madison Children’s Museum on December 31st! Shake, rattle, roll and bid farewell to 2017 at their New Year’s Eve afternoon dance party, complete with glow bracelets, sparkling juice and a confetti-filled early New Year countdown at 4 p.m.

Madison Children’s Museum

Winter Wonderland Terrarium

Winter Landscape Books

December Events

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For Educators:

Winter Poetry

The still of winter, after the bustle of the holidays has died down, is a perfect time for quiet reflection and creativity. Using the winter landscape as inspiration, many poets have crafted famous verses:

Out of the bosom of the air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft and slow
Descends the snow.
–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
–Christina Rossetti

Take a tip from Aldo Leopold who wrote, “January observation can be almost as simple and peaceful as snow, and almost as continuous as cold. There is time not only to see who has done what, but to speculate why.” Add in inspiration from sources like ReadWriteThink and Poetry4Kids, and drafting winter poems with your classroom is a cinch.

Here are a few poetry warm-ups:

Read poems aloud with students, use song lyrics as inspiration, start with an acrostic poem, take photographs and add descriptive words or phrases, pick up a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus, and – as one poet describes as the hardest part – just sit down and start writing!

If you need more inspiration, check out this fun interview with Newbery Medal-winning author Kwame Alexander who crafts a holiday poem on the spot. He sure makes it sound easy:

For Families:

Ice Caves

Apostle Island Ice Caves

Apostle Island Ice Caves

If you’re not spending your wintertime cozied up inside (also known as hygge,) you may as well take advantage of our snow-and-ice winter climate and get out there and explore. One of the most famous winter exportation spots in Wisconsin is the Apostle Island Ice Caves near Bayfield – a destination certainly on my winter bucket list. The caves themselves are formed from years of Lake Superior waves eroding ancient sandstone. The National Park Services further explains that “where wave action erodes and undercuts the base of a cliff, a feature known as a “reentrant” develops. Sea caves are produced when a number of reentrants join behind the face of a cliff, leaving behind supporting pillars and arches.” Summertime kayakers visit these sea caves in droves, but when winter winds blow, the caves are coated with dripping, shifting ice sculptures that change color and form each day. Because conditions on the lake are unpredictable, the formation of the ice caves and their accessibility shifts from year to year and day to day. If, however, you visit when the lake is traversable and the winds are calm, you are treated to a magical frozen landscape. See a series of flickr photos by clicking the above picture.

Find out more info from the National Parks Service where updates on access to the caves is updated fairly regularly. Or, read more from this article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Betsy bylineCopy of Betsy bylineBetsy Parker is an environmental educator who supports all children, families, and classrooms getting their recommended daily allowance of #VitaminN.
Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.