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editorial

Orange roses protrude through the snow in the city cemetery in Londonderry, Northern Ireland on January 14.Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

You think you know snow?

Four researchers from the University of Washington spent two months in the winter of 2013 collecting samples of undisturbed snow in 67 remote places across Canada and the U.S. They travelled 16,000 kilometres. They went to Churchill, Manitoba, and to farms in Saskatchewan and to fields outside Calgary. They visited Colorado, the Dakotas, Oregon, Montana, Minnesota and many other locations in central North America.

They drove their pickup to farmhouses and asked the startled occupants if they could access their property and collect snow samples. Mostly they were told to take all the snow they wanted.

Every four or five days, they took the carefully preserved chunks, more than 500 in all, to motel rooms.

The team melted the snow in microwaves, careful always not to contaminate it. And then they went to work with sensitive optical equipment to answer the question that had spurred their work: Is snow really white?

Nope. The researchers found that Canadian snow was relatively free of black carbon, dirt and other light-absorbing particles. In other places, however, the snow is not so pristine – especially on farmland in more populated parts of the continent. This matters, because dirtier snow reflects less light and could contribute to global warming.

We also learned from the study that people have a name for dirty snow: snirt.

We relate this story because it is a reminder of the importance of basic research. Scientists collecting bits of snow tell us about our world. It's small, but when enough basic research is going on, it can add up to big things.

In this case, the researchers were funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, in Canada, the federal government continues to cut back, and in some cases end completely, funding for research projects and important research stations. Hundreds of them. Notable ones include the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science.

We're Canada, and we don't even know snow.