Why Is Snow White?

By: Allison Loudermilk  | 
Bird's eye view of snowy trees
Snow is a whole bunch of individual ice crystals arranged together. Baac3nes/Moment/Getty Images

One of the reasons we all love snow is that it coats everything in a "pure" white blanket. We even talk about snow in these terms: Weather forecasters say that we'll be getting "some of the white stuff," and every December you're likely to hear the song "White Christmas" again and again.

Snow wouldn't be snow if it wasn't white. But it seems weird that snow is white at all, since it's just a bunch of ice crystals stuck together. So where does snow get its distinctive white color? To answer this question, we need to back up and look at why different things have different colors in the first place.


Where Does Color Come From?

Visible light is made up of many different vibration frequencies, which our eyes detect as various colors. Basically, the electrons of the particle will vibrate a certain amount in response to energy, depending on the frequency of the energy.

In the case of light energy, the molecules and atoms absorb a certain amount of light energy depending on the frequency of the light and then emit this absorbed energy as heat. This means that objects absorb certain frequencies of light more than others.


A few things can happen to the light frequencies that are not absorbed. In some materials, when a particle reemits the photons, they continue to pass through to the next particle. In this case, light travels all the way through the material, so the material is clear.

In most solid material, the particles reemit most of the unabsorbed photons out of the material, so no light, or very little light, passes through and the object is opaque. The color of an opaque object is just the combination of the light energy that the object's particles did not absorb.


The Reason Snow Is White

dog in snow
There's a lot of science that goes into making snow white. But this dog doesn't care. He just likes having fun in the stuff. Willowpix/Getty Images

Since snow is frozen water, and we all know that frozen water, free of impurities, is clear, why does snow have a distinctive color? To understand this, we need to look at a piece of ice. Ice is not transparent; it's actually translucent. This means that the light photons don't pass right through the material in a direct path; rather the material's particles change the light's direction.

This happens because the distances between some atoms in the ice's molecular structure are close to the height of light wavelengths, which means the light photons will interact with the structures. The result is that the light photon's path is altered, and it exits the ice in a different direction than it entered the ice.


Snow is comprised of a bunch of individual ice crystals arranged together. When a light photon enters a layer of snow, it goes through an ice crystal on the top, which changes its direction slightly and sends it on to a new ice crystal, which does the same thing.

Basically, the crystals bounce the light all around so that the light comes right back out of the snow pile. Snow does the same thing to all the different light frequencies, so all colors of light are bounced back out.

The "color" of all the frequencies in the visible spectrum combined in equal measure is white, so this is the color we see in snow, even though white isn't the color we "see" in the individual ice crystals that form snow.

And yes, snow can look blueish-white or pinkish-white depending on how the sun hits it or if it's in shadow (or yellow if the neighborhood dog happens upon it), as the National Center for Atmospheric Research reminds us. Snow can also be red when it's full of algae.


Why Is Snow White FAQ

Is snow clear or white?
Snow is actually translucent — or clear — since it's made up of ice crystals. However, because of how those clear crystals reflect light, snow appears white to the human eye.
Does snow reflect or absorb light?
Snow reflects light, or changes the direction in which light shines. Light is essentially "bounced back" when it shines on snow.
Is snow white because of the sun?
It's actually the unique way in which snow (or the ice crystals that make up snow) reflect light that makes it look so white. So, when the sun is shining, snow can look especially white and bright.
What causes snow?
When the atmospheric temperature reaches 32 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, and the conditions are right (like a lack of moisture in the air), snow can form.
What is white snow made of?
All snow is made up of tiny frozen water crystals.