Correction February 24, 2021: Correcting spelling of Phil Plait’s name
As a devastating winter storm hit Texas for days, viral videos started circulating on social media, claiming that the snow was “fake” or “created by the government”. As evidence, users claimed to show that when a lighter was brought close to a snowball, it burned instead of melting. This reaction, however, has a scientific explanation behind it and is not evidence of “fake” snow. Conspiracy theories about “man-made snow” have been repeatedly debunked in the past.
A now deleted TikTok video with the claim can be seen here . In the 0:49 second clip, which has been viewed over 854,500 times, a woman off-camera is heard saying: “Thank you Bill Gates for trying to (expletive) trick us that this is real snow. You’ll see it’s not melting, and it’s going to burn. Snow don’t burn(sic),” says the voice while bringing a lighter to a snowball. Other videos making similar claims can be seen here and here .
In late January 2014, when a rare ice storm swept over Atlanta, Georgia ( here ), astronomer Phil Plait ( twitter.com/BadAstronomer , here ) debunked a similar claim in a YouTube video ( here ) in an article for Slate ( here ), explaining the science behind this phenomenon.
Plait explained that the snow does melt, but it doesn’t appear to drip because the remaining snow, which is porous, absorbs the water.
Most iterations also point out that the purported fake snow “burns”, because the lighter leaves a “scorch” mark on the snowballs. “It’s burning, not melting, just turning black no water dripping it’s just burning smelling like burnt plastic,” one Facebook post here reads.
According to a fact-check by WUSA9 from 2018 ( here ) , the markings and the smell result from the burning butane, which is a colorless gas usually used as fuel in lighters that has a “faint petroleum-like odor” ( here ).
In his article here , Plait further explained the chemical process behind this dark mark: it’s not that the snowball is scorching or burning, but it’s soot adhering to the snowball ( here ).
Butane, found in the lighters, is a hydrocarbon - a molecule which is part carbon and part hydrogen. “When you burn it, the molecule reacts with oxygen in the air, breaking the bonds between atoms, and reforming new molecules,” Plait explained, which often leads to “some of the carbon molecules reforming into long chains, creating what we call soot.” ( here )
This process is also visually demonstrated in a video by science interactive center Imagination Station Toledo here ( youtu.be/YoOD54Dxkk0?t=159 ) .
Some posts ( here ) specifically claim that the snow in Texas was “chemically induced” with barium hydroxide and ammonium.
The reaction of barium hydroxide and ammonium chloride, which is often used as an example of endothermic reactions ( here , here ), does produce a snow-like white powder material as visible in this video here from the Chemistry Demonstrations Lab of the University of California, Berkeley. There is no evidence, however, that the snow in Texas was “chemically induced.”
The substances used are toxic and used in small quantities; ammonia gas which can be produced during the experiment, is also an irritant ( here ).
Similar conspiracy theories about alleged “synthetic” snow have been debunked in the past ( here , here , here ).
Reuters previously debunked the claim that President Biden had predicted and manipulated the weather that caused the Texas freeze ( here ). Other fact-check articles related to the Texas winter storm can be seen here , here , here , here .
False. There is no evidence the snow in Texas’ is “fake” or “created by the government”. Viral videos claiming that the snow “is not melting” and that it’s “burning” instead, show a common phenomenon that has been explained in the past.
This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts here .
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.