With a blanket of white snow covering Texas – which left millions without power at least 22 people dead – many viral videos started hitting social media claiming that it was “fake” snow created by the government. To prove these claims, people used a lighter to show snow burning instead of melting. As it happens with all the conspiracy theories, there is a simple scientific explanation for these videos. And it certainly does not involve fake snow.
Over the years, there has been a long list of conspiracy theories. We have the Moon hoax, several asteroids NASA is trying to cover up, the continuous claim that the Earth is flat, and the end of the Earth over and over again.
Now, a new conspiracy is making the rounds on Facebook and Youtube. The claim is that snow that fell in Texas wasn’t real snow, but it was instead fake snow. All because it didn’t melt and drip as expected when held near a lighter. Add this to the black scorch marks on the snow and, according to this conspiracy theory, there’s only one possible explanation: plastic snow that doesn’t melt but instead burns.
The reasons for this “fake snow” are many, including spreading mind-altering chemicals or blocking out the sun. As it turns out, the videos showing how snowballs don’t actually melt are accurate, but this is a classic case of confirmation bias for these people. They only tested the part that suited their narrative, but they didn’t finish the test by letting the snow melt naturally.
What is the scientific explanation?
The simple explanation is that, as the open flame hits the snow, the frozen water sublimates. In other words, it goes straight from frozen to gas, completely skipping the liquid phase. This is the opposite of what happens when your breath instantly freezes on cold days (where it goes from gas to solid).
In the world of physics, this is explained with a triple point, which is the temperature at which all three states – solid, liquid, gas – can exist at the same time. For water, the triple point is 0.01°C, and, at that temperature, sublimation of frozen ice or snow occurs just as quickly as evaporation of liquid water.
As for the black scorch marks, these come from using the lighter. Commonly, lighters are filled with butane, a hydrocarbon compound containing carbon and hydrogen. When butanes burn, it reacts with oxygen in the air and releases CO2 and H2O, but it also causes the formation of black soot. These black marks are not visible when a lighter is burning in the open air, but the snow acts like a filter and catches the soot particles. This shows up very clearly and very quickly in the white snow.
Even assuming the government was behind such a complicated scheme – which it obviously isn’t – it would be an incredibly ineffective (not to mention prohibitively expensive) way to distribute anything among the population.
So, if the snow is not fake, why so cold in Texas?
As explained by NASA’s Earth Observatory, this rare winter storm was caused by an arctic air mass, travelling south, beyond areas accustomed to freezing weather. Winter warnings covered most of the Gulf Coast area, Oklahoma and Missouri, with some areas experiencing temperatures colder than parts of Alaska.
This snowstorm was caused by “changing” strong currents of air known as jet streams. Most likely, this was caused by increasing temperatures in the Arctic due to climate change. Cold air is usually concentrated around the north pole, but the Arctic warming is forcing changes in the jet stream, and the cold air is starting to move further south than usual.
And this is only one of many more storms to come. In the future, scientists say cold air from the north pole may reach much further south, possibly even to the US-Mexico border. And the same can happen in Europe. Last year, a study published in Nature Climate Change found a significant increase in the number of storms in the last decade. For the researchers involved in this study, this was a consequence of increasing temperatures in the Arctic, which is happening at twice the rate compared to the rest of the world.
Not surprisingly, this has the potential to cause severe disruptions to the climate around the world. What’s awkward is that, while conspiracy theorists believe this increased snowfall is part of a government agenda to “force” them to believe in climate change (and a myriad of other theories), this high snowfall is (most likely) caused by climate change.