Nieve Penitentes

1 Jul

Snow in the high mountains can form the likeness of a crowd of people. Sounds a very interesting thing to see.

From December 1917 Popular Science:

Snow Honeycombs and “Penitents” of South America

The most bizarre of all forms assumed by snow is probably that known as nieve penitente. In the high Andes of tropical Argentina and Chile are found innumerable pointed or jagged blocks of snow or glacier ice, which at a distance – especially in the moonlight – bear an uncanny resemblance to throngs of white-robed human beings. This appearance has given them their Spanish name, nieve de los penitentes, “snow of the penitents,” and the international name nieve penitente. These figures are from four to seven feet high, on an average, though they are sometimes twenty feet.

The origin of “penitents” has been the subject of much controversy. Probably the snow is first blown into waves by the wind, and the hollows are undoubtedly deepened by strong sunshine, but it is not easy to see why the intervening mounds remain.

One plausible suggestion is that dust lying on the snow is blown into patches by the wind, and accelerates the melting of the snow beneath it, for the same reason that any dark object laid on a bed of snow sinks more or less rapidly under sunshine, its color causing it to absorb more solar heat than does the snow. An abundance of dust is deposited in mountainous regions from meteors.

Though the most perfect examples of “penitents” are found in the Andes, more or less similar formations occur in other mountains. Some remarkable snow “honeycombs” approaching the form of nieve penitente are produced in hot, dry summer weather among the glacier fields of Mount Rainier. The cups or hollows are a foot or more in diameter, and no water is seen anywhere, as evaporation is rapid.

And a nice, up to date image from Wikipedia:


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