Why You Can Hear Sounds Farther Away in Colder Weather

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When cold weather hits, nature almost seems to pause and give way to complete silence. During those winter months, it seems like you can actually hear the sound of paws trekking across a fresh blanket of snow (for instance) from much farther away than normally.

That’s because you actually can.

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In fact, while sound may travel faster in warm air, it travels farther once temperatures start to drop.

Like the weather, the speed of sound is never constant. Because sound is a pressure wave that relies on moving molecules around to get to its destination, environmental factors play a significant role in its speed. For instance, sound waves travel more quickly in wood than in water, and faster in water than in air.

Speaking of air, two components play a major factor in the speed of sound through the atmosphere: humidity and temperature. Surprisingly, humidity actually lowers the density of air, causing sound waves to travel faster through the heated air molecules.

Another scientific concept that affects sound waves is refraction. Much like a straw appears broken in a glass of water because of the way light rays bend as they move through different media, sound is affected as it moves through media with different properties.

On a wintry day, a layer of warmer air covers cold pockets of air closer to the ground. (Didn’t your elementary school science teacher tell you heat rises?) When sound waves emanate in cold weather, they get refracted and bent away from the warm air and travel back toward the ground. As a result, sound is able to travel farther.

Besides the differences in air temperature, the presence of sound-absorbing snow effects how we hear noise. And with both animals and people seeking shelter during the winter months, there are also fewer sources of sound in the atmosphere to distract from every little sound.

So if you happen to be one of the few who braves the elements, you will have fewer distractions as you take in the beauty of nature.