How does snow affect the distance that sound travels?

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Dear Tom,
How does snow affect the distance that sound travels? I live in a rural area and I can sometimes hear distant sounds clearly, but at other times I cannot. What is the explanation?

Jeff Hunt, Burlington, Ill.

Dear Jeff,
When a snowstorm is in progress, falling snow greatly diminishes the distance that sound waves will carry. Snowflakes absorb and block the sound waves. Heavy rain has a similar effect. When the ground has a thick layer of fresh, fluffy snow, sound waves are readily absorbed at the surface of the snow and sound will not carry as far. However, the snow surface can become smooth and hard as it ages or if there have been strong winds. Then the snow surface will actually help reflect sound waves. Sounds seem clearer and sounds travel farther under these circumstances.

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