The miracle of snow
There's a lot more to snow than a miraculous cheesy ending to a well-known Christmas movie. It probably doesn't seems like it when you've got five feet of it piled up against the door, but natural snow needs very precise conditions for it to be created. A core of a water crystal needs to form high up in the clouds which can then act as a 'seed' for other frozen water crystals to randomly tag on to. It is this random process that is behind the long held belief that every snowflake is unique. But scientists being scientists just can't resist the challenge of seeing if they can prove things wrong and they have been hunting for two identical snowflakes for decades. In 1988 a shocking announcement claimed that two identical snow crystals had been found thereby ruining yet another Christmas story. Couldn't they just be satisfied with proving Santa doesn't exist? However in true Christmas spirit they relented and said they were not true 'snowflakes' and that they were being reclassified as hollow hexagonal prisms.
Natural air freshener
Snow appears so pure and white as it flutters down and settles on the ground but it has already done quite a clean-up job. Although our air is supposedly getting cleaner there are still many of the asthma causing pollutants floating around amongst the oxygen and nitrogen. Sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are the main culprits and sulphur dioxide aggravates lung problems and causes breathing difficulties especially in the young and elderly. They also cause acid snow and when snowflakes form they are pulling pollutants out of the air and bringing them down to the ground.
Method in the cold madness
Cold weather is a great killer of microbes if only we could learn to work with it by throwing open the windows and letting out some of the central heating to let the fresh clean cool air in. Unfortunately modern society finds us hermetically sealing ourselves in with our nasty microbes on planes, train and automobiles and then passing them around to all and sundry. It's not just a case of killing the microbes, cold weather can also boost the immune system. New Year's Day swimming is becoming increasingly popular and scantily clad bathers can be seen trooping through the snow and leaping into the icy waters of Scandinavia, Russia, Northern Europe, Canada and North America on the first of January every year. It seems that they might be on to something. In 1999 a research group carried out an experiment to see what effect two hours of extreme cold had on the immune system of a group of volunteers. They found that not only was the immune system unharmed after the exposure to cold air for 2 hours, but that immune functioning was actually enhanced. They also showed that the enhancement was even better if the volunteers exercised at the same time.
Shivering weight loss
Although scientists have known for a long time that not all fat is born equal, the finer details about why they are not equal are only just coming to light. Brown fat is the good guy, it's the stuff we are born with and that keeps is warm through the early days when as babies we are so vulnerable. It's the big heat producer and calorie burner but as we get older we lose brown fat and replace it with the not so good guys. Studies carried out in Finland and Holland have shown that people who work outdoors in the winter maintain a higher percentage of brown fat in their bodies than people who work indoors. Even a slightly cooler atmosphere can activate brown fat in adults and all that shivering and teeth chattering eats up the calories.
After the clouds clear and the sun comes out, bring on the winter wonderland health farm. The sunlight bouncing off the glittering snow creates a rosy glow to the cheeks and if you bare enough skin, it will up your vitamin D levels. For anybody that suffers from seasonal affective disorder being out in the sun and snow is the most natural light therapy you'll find anywhere. If you are also up at altitude it ups red blood cell production.
The Scandinavians have one of the healthiest lifestyles in the world and in 2005 the Finns tried out a new concept in healthy ageing by building playgrounds for adults. The University of Lapland did a study of 40 elderly volunteers (65 - 81 years) who played on climbing frames, see saws and roundabouts at the playground for a period of three months. They found that everyone benefited both in terms of mental health and physical ability such as balance, speed and co-ordination.
Nothing brings out the child in us like snow. We defy even the biggest bah humbugs to resist the temptation to throw a snowball this Christmas.
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