Grit Blogs > Waking up in Kansas

Graupel: A Different Word for Snow

By K.C. Compton

Tags: wonk, words, snow,

KC ComptonEarlier yesterday, we were hemmed in by a cold, dense fog. Later in the day weather conditions morphed into a storm of little ice pellets that bounced off the frozen grass like popcorn, clicking like tiny fingernails on my window glass. Fearless Editor Hank stopped by my office, and I pointed excitedly out the window.

“I know what that is!”

“What? The sleet?” he asked, peering out into the yuck outside.

“No! It’s grapple … no, wait … not that … it’s … it’s GRAUPEL!”

See? There is an exactly right word for absolutely everything. Graupel isn’t just your garden-variety sleet. It’s that fluffy, pellet-y stuff that forms when freezing fog condenses on a snowflake. The distinction between sleet and graupel, I think, is that graupel is fluffy-looking and sleet is icy. Graupel looks like a hybrid between snow and a ball-bearing.

Call me a wonk; I love these minute distinctions that make one thing not another. One of the ways I know I’m in exactly the right career is the glee I feel when I’ve discovered the precisely right word for something.

I also love that other people care enough about the physical world to create these bodies of distinctions. Somebody was really paying attention when they noticed not only that snowflakes were very different from each other, but that they fit in particular categories.

As I cruised the Internet yesterday, searching for more information on graupel (a surprising body of information can be found, as it turns out), I stumbled upon this post on Ðrawn Association describing the work of Wilson Allen Bentley, a 19-year-old farmer living in Vermont in 1885, who has now become sort of the Patron Saint of Snowflakes. Fascinated by snow crystals, this teenager was the first person to successfully produce a photo of snow or ice crystals. He magnified crystals at 69 to 3,000 times on glass plates, and ultimately verified that every ice crystal actually is unique, growing symmetrically in a 6-sided hexagon around a miniscule nucleus. The shape the snowflake ultimately takes depends on its water content and the temperature.

Those photos by Bentley completely knock me out. Photography was in its infancy when he started experimenting with photographing snowflakes. And he had to invent a new camera to be able to pursue his obsession. But just look at those photos. Simply amazing and awe-inspiring, just because a curious Vermont teenager cared enough to keep at an intellectual pursuit day after day, year after year.

After being inspired by Bentley's photos, check out to find more snowflake photos and physics as well as links to help you find snow activities (such as "snowflake watching") for children and adults. 

Let’s hear it for slightly fey compulsions, pretty pictures—and also graupel.

1/9/2011 10:39:05 AM

I think your word closely describes what I am looking for but not quite, although I do love graupel! What I am wanting to find a word for is when snow falls down in little balls of snow and they aren't hard, do not make a sound, just as soft as "regular snow", but they do have a soft pellet shape. I had heard the term corn snow when I was in Colorado, but from what I can find on the web this is a condition after it has landed on the ground and partially thawed and frozen.

brenda kipp_1
12/18/2009 4:49:06 PM

I don't care what it's called, I don't like it! Give me good old-fashioned American snow! I saw a guy interviewed on TV not long ago. He photographs snowflakes. I believe he was putting them (the photos, not the snowflakes)together in a book. I love snowflakes. I think they are one of the most fascinating creations God ever made. It's amazing how something so small can have such intricate detail. Too bad they all have to melt!

kc compton_2
12/18/2009 11:37:47 AM

Thanks for the comments, and Hallooo up there in Nebraska and points North. Yes, I agree, graupel, gutteral though it sounds, still rolls off the tongue a little better than "styrofoam snow pellets." :=] And, yes, Dave, how right you are about the beauty all around us. Stopping to notice is all it takes. This is why I'm so grateful for my dog. His nose takes us out twice a day to notice his world and while I'm out there on the leash, I might as well notice MY world, too. I hear we're supposed to get a few flow snurries tonight, and I'm planning to be very grateful for my fireplace again. Much holiday cheer out to both of you! --KC

cindy murphy
12/18/2009 6:53:15 AM

I enjoyed reading this for a couple of reasons. One, I finally know what those styrofoam-consistency pellets of snow are called; I've always called them styrofoam snow pellets. We get a lot of them as the wind blows off Lake Michigan, creating what the weather people call frozen fog. Grauple is so much quicker to say than styrofoam snow pellets, (which btw, are no good for cross-country skiing or snowman making just in case you have the urge to try). Second, it reminds me of a time when I was library coordinator for the small volunteer library in the basement of the five room schoolhouse Shelby attended for elementary school. But ah, the tiny school closed in the name of progress, although the historic building still stands now housing the town's Historical Society. I loved that school, the little basement library, and all the books contained in it. One of them was "Snowflake Bentley", a Caldecott Medal honored biography about young William's days on the farm, and beautifully illustrated with woodcuts. Thanks for the word, and memory-trigger, KC. Happy Holidays.

nebraska dave
12/17/2009 5:21:22 PM

K.C. How great is the word graupel. We here in Nebraska haven’t had graupel this year, but we did have freezing rain with snow on top. It’s real fun to drive in but not so fun getting up the hill on my street or my even steeper driveway. I’m afraid that the only snowflake enjoyment I’ve had this year has been from behind a snowblower. I so like to be in a nice cozy place with big glass windows like Border’s book store or Panara’s Bread to cuddle up to a nice hot cup of coffee and watch snow fall. It’s like watching a real live Courier and Ive’s picture. The people coming and going especially this time of the year make it even better. There’s beauty all around us if we can just stop and take the time to enjoy it. A big Merry Christmas to you and all the Grit people from Nebraska.