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An hour on the snow can be harder on your eyes than an afternoon at the beach. Here are 10 ways to protect your eyes from glare and UV damage when you spend time in the snow.
Sun reflected off snow can do a lot more damage to your vision a lot more quickly than sun reflected off sand or summer landscapes. The intense light reflected from the snow can cause snow glare, snow blindness, or snow keratopathy, all of which can temporarily or sometimes permanently damage sight.

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Snow Glare

A coating of snow reflects nearly 80% of the sun's rays. This means that your eyes receive 80% more light on a clear day when the ground is covered with snow than they do on a clear day when the ground is covered with grass.

One of the most obvious visual problems on bright days during snow season is glare. Glare is caused by the differing rates of reflectivity of snow and surrounding objects. Snow reflects more light than trees, oncoming cars, pedestrians, light poles, and other people out enjoying winter activities. The intensity of light reflected off the snow makes other objects appear to wash out or disappear altogether. When the sun rolls behind the clouds, or any time at night, glare is greatly reduced. The effects of glare stop as soon as soon as you go inside.

Snow Blindness

The retina is the collection of cells at the back of the eye that convert light into electrical signals to send to the brain. The center of the retina receives the most light. It is especially sensitive to blue and yellow light. That's why people wear blue or yellow tinted sunglasses when they go out into the snow. Filtering out most of the light that is not blue or yellow makes it easier to see objects directly ahead, in the middle of the field of vision. Otherwise, it's easy to ski into a tree or drive into a moose that you simply don't see in the glare.

The older you are, the more the lens of your eye scatters light across your retina. Because older eyes receive more of the glaring light snow reflects, it takes up to 3 times longer for someone who is 60 to recover normal vision after being exposed to snow glare than it takes someone who is 16. The ability to see details recovers as the effects of glare wear off. This kind of snow blindness is temporary, but another kind of snow blindness is not.

Snow Keratopathy

Snow keratopathy is caused by overexposure of the eye to ultraviolet (UV) light. Usually, the ozone layer protects us from excessive UV light. The light falling on snow at high altitudes anywhere in the world (generally 4000 meters/13000 feet or higher) or even at sea level on bright winter days at the North and South Poles, however, contains enough UV light to cause damage to the eyes.

The wavelengths of UV light reflected off snow usually do not cause cancers. They do, however, cause the same kinds of damage to the lens and retina of the eye as occur after exposure to high-intensity light from halogen lamps, arc welders, and lightning. Fortunately, this kind of damage is usually limited to the cornea. If the eye suffers only a single exposure to high-intensity UV light, usually it will begin to repair itself in 36 to 72 hours. Blindness from a single exposure is very rare. However, repeated exposure can lead to loss of sight. Fortunately, there are many ways to prevent problems caused by intense sunlight reflected off the snow.

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  • McIntosh SE, Guercio B, Tabin GC, Leemon D, Schimelpfenig T. Ultraviolet keratitis among mountaineers and outdoor recreationalists. Wilderness Environ Med. 2011 Jun.22(2):144-7. Epub 2011 Jan 14.
  • Photo courtesy of cernese on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/cernese/83840612/