Burning Snowball Videos Are a Lesson in Fake News and Science

'It's called sublimation.'
Brad Bergan
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If you haven't seen the viral TikTok and Twitter videos showing users burning snow to cement claims about "fake snow," you soon will. Obviously, the rumors of snow's replacement are grossly exaggerated.

The viral videos show what naturally happens when a human holds the flame of a lighter or match directly against the surface of a snowball. But scientific explanations haven't dissuaded everyone, since the videos have gained millions of views in a very short time.

Burning snowball videos serve as a lesson in fake news and science

Those sharing the videos claiming this season's snow is "fake" also believe they know who did it (and your first guess is probably right): Bill Gates — who many social media users baselessly claim is responsible for most of the problems on Earth, including the COVID-19 pandemic. They also claim the vaccines rolling out worldwide are laced with secret tracking chips with sinister programming.

Smartphone owners who are confused online also think China is part of a Bill Gates conspiracy — claiming the country has sent fake snow to the U.S. to convince people that climate change is real.

Viral poster claims snow is 'burning'

The argument behind the melting snow video posters goes something like this: When heated, snow melts into water. Since there is no water, it isn't really snow.

"No water, no dripping, no nothing," argued one woman in a recent TikTok video — which was later re-uploaded to Twitter by a user making fun of confused online posters.

"If I put this in the microwave, it's going to start sparking because there's metal mixed in it," said the woman posting her less-than-scientific video. "No way, it's gotten harder," echoed a man whose voice could be heard after she withdrew her lighter.

"It's not melting, it's just burning," said the woman.

Fire is substantially hotter than a summer day

However, this isn't fake snow. Firstly, if it were something we'd find in say, a mall, the thick black smoke would set off fire alarms.

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And if the viral video posters wanted to test the snow, they should have left the snow at room temperature — since this is how snow typically melts on its own. But by raising snow's temperature to that of a burning flame — way, way hotter than a summer day — the snow turns immediately into water vapor.

'It's called sublimation'

This is a process called sublimation, where a warming solid material (ice) appears to "skip" a state (like liquid water) and go straight to gas (water vapor). And it's totally normal.

Sadly, too few U.S. high schools get this far in basic chemistry.

Sadder still, this phenomenon has surfaced online before. In 2014, similarly confused posters shared videos of allegedly "fake" snow. "What's actually happening here is that heat is so high that the snow is going straight from solid snow, ice to vapor," said an official from a Science Museum to a local news source at the time.

"It's called sublimation," added the man.

Social media enables 'fake' news to spread rapidly

Beyond the schadenfreude, the serious issue is how rapidly misinformation can spread via social media. We don't live in the best of all possible worlds where everyone studies chemistry or materials science in college.

And with the rise of the internet, people didn't need to go to a town square to share their opinions, which can now be formed from anything we find in the darkest or least-informed corners of the internet. Long ago, people had to go to the library to learn about the world, and the quickest way to spread an opinion was a one-on-one phone call via a landline.

No teachers or librarians in your smartphone

Now a fully-fledged conspiracy theory about "fake" snow that blames Bill Gates and China for alleged acts of mass deception in a bid to hijack our brains or whatever can fly into the minds of tens of thousands of people per second, and no teacher or librarian can fact-check a population growing this fast.

A lot of the world is changing, and it can be scary. But unless we have an advanced degree in a scientific field, it's perhaps best to let extraordinary claims fall to the wayside.

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