What Is the Difference Between Ice and Snow?

They're both solid forms of water, but they have different properties

Frost pattern on window
Getty Images/michael1959

Ice and snow are two of the solid forms of water, H2O, but they aren't the same.

What Is Ice?

Ice is the word for the solid form of water, regardless of how or where it formed or how the water molecules are stacked together. Frost is ice. Ice cubes are ice. Snow is a form of ice.

What Is Snow?

Snow is the word for precipitation that falls as frozen water. If the water forms crystals, you get snowflakes. Other types of snow include rime and graupel, which are ice, but not crystals. You can think of snow as ice that falls from the sky. Many people think of snow strictly in terms of snow crystals, which are formed when water molecules bond together into a crystal pattern, similar to carbon forming a diamond.

Snow Versus Frost

Both frost and snow grow from water vapor in the air. However, snow forms high in the atmosphere around tiny suspended particles (e.g., dust), while frost forms close to the ground on solid surfaces, including window panes.

Interesting Facts About Snow and Ice

  • Is it true that no two snowflakes are identical? While two flakes could look exactly the same to the naked eye or under light magnification, at the molecular level it's nearly impossible for two to be the same. So the answer could be true or false.
  • You can make instant snow by throwing a cupful of freshly boiled water into the air on a very cold day—say, 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Be very careful handling boiling water.
  • You can supercool water—cool it below its stated freezing point—so it will crystallize into ice on demand. Place an unopened bottle of distilled or purified water in the freezer and chill for 2.5 hours, then remove from the freezer. You can make the water freeze instantly if you shake the bottle or open the bottle and quickly pour the water onto a piece of ice. If you try the second method, the water often will freeze backward from the ice cube into the bottle.