Environment & Science

Science of Now: How fake snow is made

Artificial snow falling at Disneyland in temperate Southern California.
Artificial snow falling at Disneyland in temperate Southern California.
Myrna Litt via Flickr / Creative Commons

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Sure, it's warm and sunny in Southern California all year long, but that doesn't mean we can't have some fun frolicking in the snow too, right?

There are plenty places like the Grove and Disneyland where white flakes fall from the sky during winter.

They aren't real snow flakes, but what exactly are they?

"Millions of tiny bubbles," according to Steve Zigmont of Zigmont Magic FX, the company that creates artificial snow for Disney World in Florida.

But he added, these aren't your typical suds.

"To call it a bubble is like calling David Copperfield’s work tricks... or just calling Broadway community theater," he said.

Zigmont said the bubbles in fake snow are a complex feat of engineering that result in long lasting, residue-free flakes.

It starts with a liquid that is mostly water and something called a surfactant.

Surfactants are naturally occurring compounds that give substances like water a lower surface tension, which means less tension is needed for the substance to form a surface.

"When you want to make bubbles, that's basically what you are doing, you are making surfaces," explained UC Riverside prof. Francisco Zaera.

In fact, surfactants are used in everything from detergents to toothpaste, allowing these products to foam easily.

Adam Williams of MagicSnow, the company that creates the flurries for the Grove, said different businesses use different blends of surfactants to create fake flakes.

His company has a proprietary blend designed by an in-house chemist.

Once this blend is completed, it's added to a machine that pumps it though a sieve-like cloth called a sock. It's sort of like a really tiny bubble wand creating really tiny bubbles. 

(In this video of a snow machine you can see the cone shaped sock where the bubbles are formed before being blown out into the world.)

Fake snow machines can pump our millions of these bubbles at a time and shoot them into the air, creating that falling snow effect.

Some artificial snow formulas even use gelatin to help preserve the shape of the bubble after the liquid evaporates, creating a longer lasting shell.

According to Steve Zigmont, quality fake snow bubbles can last a minute or two before disappearing.

He added, the material is non-toxic and if blended right, it shouldn't leave behind any soapy residue.