Weather Wise

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The Independent Online
Why are the British not campaigning vigorously for snowballing to be included in the Winter Olympics? As yesterday's Independent reported on the front page, the organisers in Nagano are having many problems with snow. First they were worried about having too little, now they have too much, and it's a nasty wet snow that cannot be cleared by mechanical blowers.

So the wrong sort of snow for the Japanese is exactly the right sort of snow for British Rail. In Britain snow generally falls when the temperature is within two degrees of zero Celsius. The right conditions for snow demand warm air - which supplies the moisture - as well as cold, which freezes it for long enough to prevent its falling as rain. Most commonly, especially in the south-east of the country, the moist air arrives from the west or south-west, while the chilling component comes from the north or east.

We have had very little snow so far this winter because it has been either too warm for snowflakes to survive their fall to the ground, or too cold for the warm, moist air to get close enough. When snow does fall under close-to-zero conditions, salting or gritting will melt it by introducing impurities that lower the freezing-point of the water that forms it. The same treatment has little effect on the less common, but not exceptionally unusual, very cold, powdery snow that sometimes blows in from the east - as with the notorious "wrong sort of snow" that so frustrated British Rail in the second week of February 1991. Such powdery snow is also the wrong sort for snowballs. They do not have the moisture necessary to cohere, and just fall apart in your hand - or down a companion's neck if you get close enough.

So a powerful case may be made for including snowballs in the Olympics. First, it would give the Japanese a perfect way to incorporate the unwanted wet snow into the competitive programme, thereby getting rid of vast handfuls of the stuff in a useful way. Second, a properly conducted snowball fight - between teams or individuals - could combine the elegance of, say, fencing, with the strength and technique of shot-putting.

Finally, it is, unlike almost everything else in the Winter Olympics, something the British could do well at. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word "snowball" dates back to the very beginning of the 15th century. Six hundred years of continuous practice would surely give us a head start.