The English word ,,winter" comes from the Proto-Indo-European word ,,wend," which stands for water.
The tilt of the Earth's axis relative to its orbital plane plays a big role in the weather. The Earth is tilted at an angle of 23.44° to the plane of its orbit, and this causes different latitudes on the Earth to directly face the Sun as the Earth moves through its orbit. It is this variation that primarily brings about the seasons. When it is winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the Southern Hemisphere faces the Sun more directly and thus experiences warmer temperatures than the Northern Hemisphere. Conversely, winter in the Southern Hemisphere occurs when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted more toward the Sun. From the perspective of an observer on the Earth, the winter Sun has a lower maximum altitude in the sky than the summer Sun.
During winter in either hemisphere, the lower altitude of the Sun causes the sunlight to hit that hemisphere at an oblique angle. In regions experiencing winter, the same amount of solar radiation is spread out over a larger area. This effect is compounded by the larger distance that the light must travel through the atmosphere, allowing the atmosphere to dissipate more heat. Compared with these effects, the changes in the distance of the earth from the sun are negligible.
The manifestation of the meteorological winter (freezing temperatures) in the northerly snow-prone parallels is highly variable depending on elevation, position versus marine winds and the amount of precipitation. A case of point is in Canada which is a country normally associated with its tough winters. Winnipeg on the Great Plains at a relative distance from large bodies of water has a January high of −11.3 °C (11.7 °F) and a low of −21.4 °C (−6.5 °F). In comparison, Vancouver on the coast with a marine influence from moderating Pacific winds has a January low of 1.4 °C (34.5 °F) with days well above freezing at 6.9 °C (44.4 °F). Both areas are on the 49th parallel north and in the same western half of the continent. A similar effect, although with less extreme differentials, is found in Europe where in spite of the northerly latitude of the islands, the British Isles has not a single non-mountain weather station with a below-freezing mean temperature.
Meteorological winter is the method of measuring the winter season used by meteorologists based on ,,sensible weather patterns" for record keeping purposes, so the start of meteorological winter varies with latitude. Winter is often defined by meteorologists to be the three calendar months with the lowest average temperatures. This corresponds to the months of December, January and February in the Northern Hemisphere, and June, July and August in the Southern Hemisphere. The coldest average temperatures of the season are typically experienced in January or February in the Northern Hemisphere and in June, July or August in the Southern Hemisphere. Nighttime predominates in the winter season, and in some regions winter has the highest rate of precipitation as well as prolonged dampness because of permanent snow cover or high precipitation rates coupled with low temperatures, precluding evaporation. Blizzards often develop and cause many transportation delays. Diamond dust, also known as ice needles or ice crystals, forms at temperatures approaching −40 °F (−40 °C) due to air with slightly higher moisture from aloft mixing with colder, surface based air. They are made of simple ice crystals that are hexagonal in shape. The Swedish meteorological institute (SMHI) define winter as when the daily mean temperatures go below 0 °C (32 °F) for five consecutive days. According to the SMHI, winter in Scandinavia is more pronounced when Atlantic low–pressure systems take more southerly and northerly routes, leaving the path open for high–pressure systems to come in and cold temperatures to occur. As a result, the coldest January on record in 1987 was also the sunniest in Stockholm.
Accumulations of snow and ice are commonly associated with winter in the Northern Hemisphere, due to the large land masses there. In the Southern Hemisphere, the more maritime climate and the relative lack of land south of 40°S makes the winters milder; thus, snow and ice are less common in inhabited regions of the Southern Hemisphere. In this region, snow occurs every year in elevated regions such as the Andes, the Great Dividing Range in Australia, and the mountains of New Zealand, and also occurs in the southerly Patagonia region of South America. Snow occurs year-round in Antarctica.
Snow is precipitation in the form of flakes of crystalline water ice that falls from clouds.
Since snow is composed of small ice particles, it is a granular material. It has an open and therefore soft, white, and fluffy structure, unless subjected to external pressure. Snowflakes come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Types that fall in the form of a ball due to melting and refreezing, rather than a flake, are hail, ice pellets or snow grains.
The process of precipitating snow is called snowfall. Snowfall tends to form within regions of upward movement of air around a type of low-pressure system known as an extratropical cyclone. Snow can fall poleward of these systems' associated warm fronts and within their comma head precipitation patterns (called such due to the comma-like shape of the cloud and precipitation pattern around the poleward and west sides of extratropical cyclones). Where relatively warm water bodies are present, for example because of water evaporation from lakes, lake-effect snowfall becomes a concern downwind of the warm lakes within the cold cyclonic flow around the backside of extratropical cyclones. Lake-effect snowfall can be heavy locally. Thundersnow is possible within a cyclone's comma head and within lake effect precipitation bands. In mountainous areas, heavy snow is possible where upslope flow is maximized within windward sides of the terrain at elevation, if the atmosphere is cold enough. Snowfall amount and its related liquid equivalent precipitation amount are measured using a variety of different rain gauges.
Once on the ground, snow can be categorized as powdery when light and fluffy, fresh when recent but heavier, granular when it begins the cycle of melting and refreezing, and eventually ice once it comes down, after multiple melting and refreezing cycles, into a dense mass called snow pack. When powdery, snow moves with the wind from the location where it originally landed, forming deposits called snowdrifts that may have a depth of several meters. After attaching itself to hillsides, blown snow can evolve into a snow slab—an avalanche hazard on steep slopes. The existence of a snowpack keeps temperatures lower than they would be otherwise, as the whiteness of the snow reflects most sunlight, and any absorbed heat goes into melting the snow rather than increasing its temperature. The water equivalent of snowfall is measured to monitor how much liquid is available to flood rivers from meltwater that will occur during the following spring. Snow cover can protect crops from extreme cold. If snowfall stays on the ground for a series of years uninterrupted, the snowpack develops into a mass of ice called glacier. Fresh snow absorbs sound, lowering ambient noise over a landscape because the trapped air between snowflakes attenuates vibration. These acoustic qualities quickly minimize and reverse, once a layer of freezing rain falls on top of snow cover. Walking across snowfall produces a squeaking sound at low temperatures.
The energy balance of the snowpack itself is dictated by several heat exchange processes. The snowpack absorbs solar shortwave radiation that is partially blocked by cloud cover and reflected by snow surface. A long-wave heat exchange takes place between the snowpack and its surrounding environment that includes overlying air mass, tree cover and clouds. Heat exchange takes place by convection between the snowpack and the overlaying air mass, and it is governed by the temperature gradient and wind speed. Moisture exchange between the snowpack and the overlying air mass is accompanied by latent heat transfer that is influenced by vapor pressure gradient and air wind. Rain on snow can add significant amounts of thermal energy to the snowpack. A generally insignificant heat exchange takes place by conduction between the snowpack and the ground. The small temperature change from before to after a snowfall is a result of the heat transfer between the snowpack and the air. As snow degrades, its surface can develop characteristic ablation textures such as suncups or penitentes.
The term snow storm can describe a heavy snowfall, while a blizzard involves snow and wind, obscuring visibility. Snow shower is a term for an intermittent snowfall, while flurry is used for very light, brief snowfalls. Snow can fall more than a meter at a time during a single storm in flat areas, and meters at a time in rugged terrain, such as mountains. When snow falls in significant quantities, travel by foot, car, airplane and other means becomes severely restricted, but other methods of mobility become possible, such as the use of snowmobiles, snowshoes and skis. When heavy snow occurs early in the fall (or, on rarer occasions, late in the spring), significant damage can occur to trees still in leaf. Areas with significant snow each year can store the winter snow within an ice house, which can be used to cool structures during the following summer. A variation on snow has been observed on Venus, though composed of metallic compounds and occurring at a substantially higher temperature.