Unprecedented winter storms in southern states have made those most affected by the weather pretty tense over the last week. But we can’t say we saw this one coming: New viral videos show TikTok users holding lighters to snowballs to stoke conspiracy theories about “fake snow” they say has been seeded by—wait for it—global environmental philanthropist and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates.
Yeah. It’s a lot.
In the videos, people hold open flames from lighters and other implements directly up to hardpacked snowballs. The snowballs don’t appear to melt, but instead, they burn. “No water, no dripping, no nothing,” says one woman, who believes there’s metal inside the snow, and that Gates is somehow to blame. (Warning: This video contains explicit language—and Popular Mechanics certainly doesn’t condone using the term in this tweet to describe the good people of Texas.)
I am obsessed with idiots in Texas thinking the snow is fake and a government plot pic.twitter.com/7F0hsLB3hB
— B.W. Carlin (@BaileyCarlin) February 22, 2021
Texans are reporting that the SNOW WON’T MELT. pic.twitter.com/AclPqZOyNo
— SixBrownChicks (@SixBrownChicks) February 20, 2021
So what’s really happening here? The truth isn’t something sinister—it’s just science. The fire is causing the frozen mass of snow to sublimate straight into water vapor, not liquid water. Sublimation is when a solid skips the liquid phase and goes directly to gas. (The opposite happens, too, like when your breath freezes and shatters on the coldest days.)
Sublimation is what gives dry ice its patented hazy, theatrical flair. Carbon is very difficult to push into a liquid form and much more easily goes directly from frozen to vapor. Freeze-dried (“astronaut”) food is also the result of water sublimation.
Snow turns directly to vapor instead of melting because every substance has a triple point, which is just what it sounds like: the temperature at which all three states of matter for that substance can all exist. Water’s triple point is so ubiquitous that, along with some other triple points of common compounds, it’s used to define certain measurements. The triple point is a shade over 32 degrees Fahrenheit under the right pressure:
“The single combination of pressure and temperature at which liquid water, solid ice, and water vapor can coexist in a stable equilibrium occurs at approximately 273.1575 K (0.0075 °C; 32.0135 °F) and a partial vapor pressure of 611.657 pascals (6.11657 mbar; 0.00603659 atm).”
That means a lot of ice is at this temperature and pressure every year. And you’ve probably seen this at work, like when snow disappears even though the temperature hasn’t warmed to a point when the snow would melt, for example.
In a 2018 study, scientists from the University of Amsterdam found that snow evaporates—or sublimes—just as quickly as liquid water in the right conditions. When the scientists studied the sublimation of small ice drops and snowflakes, they found that “under the same conditions, the sublimation of a frozen ice droplet happens just as quickly as the evaporation of the same drop when it is composed of liquid water.”
Why are people so eager to believe snow is fake? The idea of “weather control” has laced through conspiracy circles for decades, like so-called “chemtrails” and seeded rain clouds. In this case, conspiracy theorists might believe increased snowfall indicates something about climate change, which they say is part of a global agenda to push government restrictions onto residents.
Bill Gates is many things—billionaire, philanthropist, synthetic beef advocate—but conspiracy theorists think he and the Chinese government might both benefit from a world where people are blanketed by pretend snow. You’d just think if someone could seed clouds and control the weather, they’d use real snow instead of some kind of slush that has metal in it. 🤷🏻♂️
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