If you’ve ever seen the Rocky Mountains, you can’t help but be taken aback by their beauty. When their tops are capped with snow, they make a picture that’s breathtaking.

Thinking about the beauty of the mountains got us to thinking about why some of them have snow at the top (called a snowcap) and others don’t. Since the top of a mountain is closer to the sun, shouldn’t it be warmer up there? And doesn’t heat rise? So why is there snow?

The top of the mountain is actually its coldest spot. As you climb a mountain to a higher altitude (height), the atmosphere gets thinner and thinner. This is because air pressure decreases with altitude.

Even though warm air rises, as it does so the rising air expands and cools. When it expands and cools, it can’t absorb and retain heat the way it does at the bottom of the mountain.

Although mountaintops are closer to the sun, they’re also farther away from the thermal heat of the Earth’s core that keeps the ground warm. So the top of the mountain can be much colder than the bottom.

In fact, the bottom of a mountain can be located in a tropical jungle while the top of the mountain has snow on it! That’s why it’s possible to have snow at the equator.

Cooler temperatures at the top of a mountain also mean that there’s less evaporation taking place. This leads to greater amounts of moisture in the air. More moisture means more rain and, at the very top of a mountain, more snow.

Not all mountains have snowcaps, and not all mountains that get snow have snowcaps all year. A lot depends upon their location and how tall they are. Mountains lower in altitude are less likely to have snowcaps or to have them all year long.

Many mountains, though, have snowcaps year-round. Above a certain point — called the snow line — it stays cold enough that the snow never melts.

The height of the snow line varies around the globe. It depends upon both altitude (height of the mountain) and latitude (where the mountain is located). The snow line is much higher near the equator (about 15,000 feet), for example, than it is near the poles (sea level or 0 feet in altitude).

The snow line can be affected by other factors, too. For example, in the Andes Mountains of South America, it is so dry that the mountains rarely see snow, despite their height and distance from the equator. Monte Pissis in Argentina is the tallest mountain in the world without a permanent snowcap.

Mountains that are near coastlines may have a lower snow line than other areas with the same altitude and latitude. As you get closer to a coastline, the amount of moisture in the air tends to produce more snowfall at higher altitudes.

 

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    • We’re glad you learned something new about mountains by exploring today’s Wonder of the Day®, Pop Star! :-)

    • Happy Tuesday, Mikayla! We’re SO HAPPY to hear that your family enjoyed today’s Wonder…THANK YOU for sharing it with your mom and your sister! You are a GREAT Wonder Friend! :-)

    • Hello, Shundee! Thanks for your great comment today! Be sure to check out the link for “Monte Pissis” inside today’s Wonder! It’s a mountain in Argentina that’s the tallest mountain in the world without a permanent snowcap! :-)

    • We’re super sorry you didn’t care for today’s Wonder, Pop Star. Thanks so much for visiting Wonderopolis today…we hope you will give tomorrow’s Wonder a try! :-)

  1. Well, I do like to think about those mountains but, no all mountains do not have snowcaps. Anyway, I LOVE this site!!!! If I were to say what I like about this site I would say… EVERYTHING!!!!!!! You should do a wonderopolis on Harry Potter or Greek Myths!!!!
    :D :) :p

    • Thanks so much for letting us know you like exploring Wonderopolis, Maxini! We appreciate hearing that! If you like learning about Greek mythology, we’re pretty sure there is a Wonder of the Day® coming up in the near future that you will especially enjoy (wink, wink!)! :-)

    • We think YOU are COOL for hanging out in Wonderopolis today, Caelah! Thank you for being a GREAT Wonder Friend! :-)

  2. Well, at least today’s wonder of the day is about mountains. I loved today’s wonder! I think tomorrow’s wonder of the day is about screaming.

    TJ

    • Hi, TJ! We’re really happy to know that you loved today’s Wonder! We thought it was really WONDERful, too! We like your guess for what tomorrow’s Wonder might be. :-)

    • That’s a really great guess about tomorrow’s Wonder, Alex! We’ll all have to visit Wonderopolis tomorrow to see if your guess was correct! :-)

    • Thanks for sharing a little bit about yourself with everyone in Wonderopolis today, Clara! We think it’s SO COOL that you have seen snowcaps in Colorado! :-)

  3. Wow, those mountain tops are sweet. I have a question…how does snow get to the mountains but not the ground? Today’s wonder was awesome.
    I think tomorrow’s wonder is about how sound travels.

    • That’s a GREAT question, Joseph! Because the top of the mountain is the farthest away from the warmth of the Earth’s core, the snow “stays” there once it falls. Further down the mountain, the temperature is warmer, so the snow melts. :-)

    • Hello, Mrs. Russell and your WONDERful kindergarten class from Sauder Elementary! We think it is AWESOME that you guys are blogging about some of the fun, interesting things you learn about when you visit Wonderopolis! We hope our other Wonder Friends will visit and leave you guys some comments on your GREAT blog posts, too! :-)

  4. We loved learning about snowcaps. There are many beautiful snowcaps in Montana. We can even see some out of our window.

    Have a good day Wonderopolis! We love you.

    xoxo
    KF Dragons

    • WOW! We bet those snowcaps ARE beautiful in Montana, KF Dragons! You guys are so lucky to be able to see them out of your window! Thank you for visiting Wonderopolis today and leaving us this AWESOME comment! :-)

    • Thank YOU for checking out today’s Wonder, Grace! We appreciate your comment very much and we’re SUPER GLAD you learned something new in Wonderopolis today! :-)

  5. Ok, our class LOVES Wonderopolis, we always learn a lot…But today you blew our teacher’s mind! She went to college for Geology and she didn’t think that the ground temperature would effect the climate on a mountain. A student in our class remembered reading about this in 2nd grade and corrected her. This was cool for everyone involved! Our teacher…Miss Price (me) loves learning and she is super curious about this. Can you tell us where we can learn more about ground temps. and mountains?

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Do all mountains wear snowcaps?
  • Why does it get colder the higher you go up a mountain?
  • What is the snow line?

Wonder Gallery

mount fuji_shutterstock_56480Vimeo Video

Try It Out

Ready to cook up a delicious treat? Since we’ve been learning about how heat rises but mountaintops still can have snow and ice, we thought it might be fun to head to the kitchen to whip up a treat that’s both hot and cold.

What could it be? Have you ever baked ice cream? No? Well, it’s about time you started. Just follow the directions and watch the video to learn how to make Baked Snowcaps!

When you’re finished, email us or post on Facebook to tell us how your Baked Snowcaps turned out. Feel free to post or send a picture, too. We bet your hot and cold treat will be delicious!

 

Still Wondering

Check out National Geographic Xpeditions’ Life in the Mountains lesson to explore the idea that people in different parts of the world have different customs and habits of daily life, even if they live in similar landscapes. Children will view pictures of and discuss life in the mountains of Colorado and Nepal and write stories describing what it might be like to live in the mountains of Nepal.

 

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