The Snowflake

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by jmissel
Last updated 4 years ago

Weather and Climate

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The Snowflake

The SnowflakeWinter's Secret Beauty

The Creative Genius"A snowflake is a temporary work of art."The difference between "snowflakes" and "snow crystal" is in their meteorological definition: "snow crystal" refers to an individual crystal of ice. "Snowflake" is commonly a conjoining of several snow crystals. Naturally, snow crystals are six-branched ice stars with each branch having it's own subbranches. Another less common formation of ice crystals is a needle-like, hexagonal prism, similar to the shape of a wooden pencil.

Field Guide to Falling Snow

Text by Kenneth LibbrechtPhotography by Patricia Rasmussen

Click on images to find their source!

Snowflake WatchingThe first recorded study of snowflakes was performed by Rene Descartes in 1637. The first publication about snowflakes, Cloud Crystals: A Snow-Flake Album, was crafted in 1864 by Frances Knowlton Chickering and consisted of Mrs. Chickering's sketches of observed snowflakes. Wilson Bentley was the first photographer of fallen snow.

The Making of a Snowflake"Snowflakes are made of ice, yet ice does not make a snowflake."A snowflake is made when water vapor freezes directly into solid ice. As more vapor condenses onto it, the crystal becomes more developed and complex. The average snow crystal is about 1-2 mm in diameter. They are not all perfectly symmetric; most are irregular in shape. During warmer snowfalls, columnar snow crystals are more commonly seen. Twelve-branched snowflakes are possible, as they are simply two six-sided crystals conjoined at the center.

Snow Crystal SymmetryA crystal is any material in which the atoms or molecules are arranged in a regular way. There are at least 14 different types of ice and each represents a different way in which their water molecules stack. Snowflakes naturally have many facets (literally meaning "little faces") that one could see on a diamond, however those on gemstones are often artificial. Natural facets arise from self-assembly of materials and always show a characteristic symmetry caused by the molecular bonds.

A faceted snow crystal

Diagram from:

Hieroglyphs from the SkyJapanese snow-crystal researcher Ukichiro Nakaya formed the first synthetic snowflakes in his lab on a rabbit hair in 1954. He discovered the snow crystal's morphology was closely related to it's growth conditions, especially temperature. Temperature determines whether crystals grow as plates or columns and humidity determines the complexity of the structure.

Snowflake WeatherTo begin making snow, a snow cloud needs to be formed from a large amount of water vapor in the air. The air should then be cooled and the humidity should rise. Further cooling should cause the humidity to rise even further until the air is "supersaturated." The supersaturated air will form tiny water droplets which can grab ahold of dust particles to use as the nucleus of a snow crystal.

Large lakes provide ample supply of water to be transformed into water vapor that can produce snow clouds. The water is often quickly dumped as snow just downwind of large lake.

Lake Effect Snow

Forming Snow Crystal

Stellar Dendrites Sectored Plates

Hollow Columns Needle

Spacial Dendrites Capped Columns Rimed Crystals

Irregular Crystals


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