The Simple Science of Snowstorms and Serenity

A blanket of snow absorbs sound, reduces noise pollution, and lowers stress.

Posted Jan 23, 2016

Detroit Publishing Company/Public Domain
Snow can create a sense of calm by reducing noise pollution by up to 60 percent. 
Source: Detroit Publishing Company/Public Domain

In his poem, The Snowfall Is So Silent, Miguel de Unamuno intuitively pinpoints the primary scientific reason that snow can create a sense of serenity. He writes, “The snowfall is so silent, so slow, bit by bit, with delicacy it settles down on the earth and covers over the fields. The silent snow comes down white and weightless; snowfall makes no noise, falls as forgetting falls, flake after flake.”

All of us who live in colder winter climates know the peaceful feeling that a blanket of freshly fallen snow creates. Now, a new report by a mechanical engineer offers a logical explanation of the science behind why '"the snowfall is so silent." The scientific explanation for snow's serenity is simple: Snow absorbs sound and reduces noise pollution. Snowflakes literally have the power to create peace and quiet. 

David W. Herrin, Ph.D., is an acoustics expert and associate professor in the University of Kentucky College of Engineering. Herrin studies acoustic materials, mufflers and silencers, and structural dynamics. In a press release, Herrin said, "In the audible range, a couple inches of snow is roughly around 0.6 or 60 percent absorbing on average. Snow is porous, in some ways like a commercial sound absorbing foam."

Sound absorption is measured on a scale between 0 and 1, with zero being a concrete floor and one being complete silence. According to Herrin, snow absorbs sound much like commercial sound absorbing materials—such as fibers and foams used in cars, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) systems and other equipment—absorb sound and reduce noise pollution, which reduces stress.

What Is the History of Noise Pollution?

In the 1970s, the United States initiated a federal program called the "Noise Pollution Act of 1972" that was designed to protect human health by minimizing annoying and unhealthy noise pollution. The Act established noise emission standards for practically every source of noise. This included: motor vehicles, aircraft, certain types of HVAC equipment, and all major appliances.

In 1981, Congress ended funding of the federal noise control program. Starting in 1982, the primary responsibility for addressing noise pollution shifted to state and local governments and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to the EPA, noise pollution is 'any unwanted or disturbing sound that interferes with normal daily activities such as having a conversation, sleeping, or in some way disrupts or diminishes someone’s quality of life.' 

Noise pollution doesn’t receive nearly as much attention as air pollution or water pollution, but it can still be very detrimental to your health. Studies have linked excessive noise pollution with stress related illnesses, high blood pressure, hearing loss, sleep disruption, difficulty focusing, and lost productivity.

As a Native New Yorker, I’ve always loved that a blizzard brings the hustle and bustle of the city to a grinding halt. The empty streets and lack of vehicles in the first hours of a major snowstorm are the most peaceful times I’ve ever known in Manhattan . . . Suddenly, there’s no real rush to be anywhere, or to do anything. The entire city seems to stop and heave a giant exhale.

The ability of snow to make it OK to not be a ‘go-getter’ for a day creates a laidback feeling that is contagious. For me, being snowbound creates the perfect environment for losing myself in a book. Of course, there’s always the potential danger and stress caused by being trapped in a snowstorm that is anything but romantic. But when you're safe and sound, the silence of a snowstorm is scientifically proven to facilitate tranquility. 

If you’d like to learn more about the science of snow and the physics of what makes every snowflake truly unique, Check out "The Science of Snowflakes" on YouTube:

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