It’s safe to eat snow (but check color first)

Great news from the scientific community! It’s actually all right to eat snow. Well, there is the added caveat that it is all right to eat white snow. Colors other than white should probably not be eaten.

I am not sure how the myth got started that you shouldn’t eat snow. It sure wasn’t me. I’ve been eating snow all my life, and I’m normal. I think the whole thing might have gotten started when Alexander Michaud of Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont., found a bunch of bacteria inside some hailstones. He has become semi-famous for this discovery and in recent years he’s set off a flurry of research (sorry) on bacteria in snow.

I almost went to the University of Montana for a doctoral program once but decided against it because they had too much snow. That’s how seemingly trivial decisions have consistently stolen fame and fortune from me. But I probably wouldn’t have discovered bacteria inside hail- stones anyway because I was mostly looking at worms inside animals at the time. There is no accounting for people’s various preoccupations. 

Snow is formed in the troposphere. (I don’t exactly know where the troposphere is, but I thought I’d throw it in here because it sounds so cool.  No, I mean literally cold. It sometimes gets below minus 40 degrees Celsius there and that’s what it takes to form ice crystals there. I think it’s even further away than Loma though.) You might wonder how the bacteria got up into the troposphere in the first place. It’s a little hard to track individual bacteria. Maybe that’s something useful the NSA could try next. Presumably the bacteria get swept up there by wind and storms, but I suppose it could be terrorists.

Oddly, many of the bacteria at the center of snowflakes are of the same kind, Pseudomonas syringae. This bacteria has a protein on the cell wall that binds water molecules to it. When the water molecules get that close together, they form ice crystals, which then grow into snowflakes. 

Pseudomonas syringae is actually a well-known plant pathogen. So obviously its first order of business is to get back down to where the plants are. By aiding in the formulation of rain and snow it arranges to get out of that terrible plant-less troposphere. I just knew there had to be a pathogen in there someplace. Even precipitation relies on parasites to make it occur. (This adds further evidence to my theory that everything is dependent on parasites.)

It used to be thought that dust and mineral particles formed the nucleus for most rain and snow formation. However, these recent studies in “bioprecipitation” suggest that living things need rain, so living things make it rain. There is something cool about that. It does raise some interesting questions, though. Like, does it snow more in areas where plants are sicker? Would overgrazing and plant stress affect weather patterns? If we cured disease would it cause drought?

Recent research shows that all kinds of living things are found in great numbers in clouds. Besides bacteria there are fungi, diatoms and algae up there. It didn’t occur to me to dissect a cloud to see what was inside it like we do plants and animals. I am glad to see the weather guys catching up with modern scientific techniques, though. Now, intriguing as this sounds, don’t try doing it yourself. Special technology is required to dissect a real cloud (not that artificial thing on your cellphone) and there are probably ethical issues to be addressed. 

I must hasten to explain that eating Pseudomonas syringae is not harmful to your health, unless you are photosynthetic. The critters are simply the “nucleators” for the formation of the moisture. (I am not sure if nucleator is a word or not. If it isn’t, it ought to be.)  Anyway, that is why it is perfectly safe to eat snow, as long as it is white.

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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