Sno-nuts, snow snails: Cool phenomenon becomes hot topic on social media

If there's one thing Northerners know about, it's snow. But apparently they don't always agree about how to describe it.

Yukoner Adam Skrutkowski recently spotted some pretty little formations at the bottom of an embankment near his home in Teslin. He shared the picture of what look like white cinnamon rolls with CBC Yukon, and suggested a name — "sno-nuts".

That prompted a blizzard of alternative suggestions on CBC Yukon's Facebook page.

"Snow snails. They come out in the spring," wrote Virginia Sarrazin. 

Shirley Chua-Tan suggested "Yukon spring rolls. A real treat for both local and tourists".

The discussion continued to snowball, with a flurry of clever ideas. People were clearly on a roll.

"Snow curls, like butter curls," suggested Angela Wingfield, while Shelley Perry offered "snirt rolls" (snow and dirt).

Some other cool suggestions: snow roses, snow bales, "cinnamonow", Yukon tumbleweed, snow cotton, and "snoil" (snow coil).

Paul Scholz, meanwhile, compared them to ammonites — fossilized molluscs.

Concretions and pinwheels

So what do the experts say? Do these picturesque spring phenomena have a colder, more scientific name?

"I would call it a 'concretion'," wrote Dr. Joel Cubley, a geologist at Yukon College.

"I'm not a sedimentary geologist per se, but in my opinion you can get concretions one of two ways — either precipitation from solution onto a preexisting nucleus in a static environment, or rolling of a nucleus in an agitated, higher energy environment," he wrote.

"The snowball would use the latter rolling mechanism."

Meanwhile, James Floyer, a forecaster with Avalanche Canada, says he's always known them as "pinwheels".

"Often you see them underneath cliffs, or where there might be trees or something that creates a little bit of movement onto the snow. And then you need a steep enough slope for these to roll down and keep going," he said.

The crucial ingredient, though — to make eye-catching pinwheels — may be a visible layer of dirt on the slope's surface.

"I think that'd help to highlight the rolls a little bit, in the same way that someone sprinkling cinnamon onto a pastry and then rolling it up for a cinnamon roll — you'd sort of see the layers in there a little bit more," Floyer said.

Floyer admits he doesn't like to see them on steep mountainside, as they're a sign the snow pack is losing strength.

But out of avalanche country, he says, "they're pretty, absolutely."

"They indicate spring is on the way."