Tuesday, January 24, 2023

The Beauty of a Snowflake 


A snowflake is one of God’s most fragile creations. Psalm 147:16 begins, “He sends the snow like white wool” (NLT). And there really is something awesome about freshly fallen, white snow covering everything. It really is like a blanket of white wool spread over the earth. In fact, because snow is comprised of 90 to 95 percent trapped air, when it covers the ground, it keeps everything beneath it warm. That’s why so many animals tunnel into the snow to hibernate or burrow into the ground to get comfortable beneath the snow during winter. It’s also the reason that igloos can be so much warmer inside than outside.

Snow Happens – Whether You Like It or Not 

When you ask a child what snow is, you’re likely to get answers like cold, white, wet, fun. Or maybe shiny, sparkly, pretty. And it is. But older folks often have a different perspective. As we age, we tend to view snow as a burden or a chore, rather than something to be enjoyed.

Falling snow sometimes reminds me of childhood; of my sister and me bundled up like a couple of human marshmallows with pink noses and cheeks and wet gloves; damp, but not cold; building a snowman or making snow sculptures in the backyard. I can recall crawling inside an ‘igloo’ that I’d built (Actually, it was more like a little cave) and pretending that I was a real Eskimo.

Even the kids that didn’t like winter were happy when school closed for a snow day. Especially when they didn’t have their homework ready.

And I can recall a friend’s young granddaughter, several years ago, comparing snowflakes to little, white angels and then just falling backwards into the snow to make a ‘big’ snow angel.

These days, I enjoy seeing an attractive cardinal or blue jay foraging in the freshly-fallen snow beneath the feeders. And I like the stillness; the quiet after it snows. And that’s not imagined. Because it’s so porous, snow is a natural sound buffer.


A snowflake created under controlled conditions, inside a homemade snowflake-creation-chamber. Photo Credit: Kenneth G. Libbrecht; CalTech.

What is Snow? 

In the eyes of most people, snow might seem like nothing. But a closer look reveals that snow or, more precisely, snowflakes are really quite extraordinary.

By simple definition, snow forms when water vapor (not liquid water) in the clouds condenses and freezes into ice crystals (a crystal is a solid substance that has flat surfaces and sharp corners), often around a particle, or nanoparticle, of dirt. The ice crystals may remain in the clouds or, if they’re heavy enough, fall to the ground.

Individual ice crystals fuse with other ice crystals to form snowflakes. The crystals often grow in fractal and jagged patterns. Hypothetically, every snowflake created will have six, more-or-less identically shaped segments. They’re a wonderful example of symmetry in nature. In fact, when all is said and done, if you could fold a snowflake in half, the two sides would, for all intents and purposes, match.

In 1611, German astronomer, mathematician, and physicist, Johannes Kepler (Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion), authored ‘The Six-Cornered Snowflake,’ in which he wondered, “Why do snowflakes when they are falling and before they become entangled and form larger snowflakes, have six corners and are clustered like feathers.” The essay formed a basis for the study and understanding of crystal structures. Centuries later, thanks to advances in science, some of his speculations became better-understood and would eventually be proven.

In 1885, Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley, a self-educated Vermont farmer, took a high-resolution picture of a snowflake using a bellows camera with a microscope mounted inside. The technique, called photomicrography, which Bentley pioneered, allowed him to take pictures of individual snowflakes. And, over the course of his life, he took pictures of more than 5000 snowflakes.

Snowflakes on glove and firewood

Snowflakes on My Glove and Firewood. Photo Provided.

  The Physics of Snowflakes  

Apparently, snowflakes are minerals. According to Dr. Jeffrey Post, Curator in Charge of Gems and Minerals at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History, “Snowflakes are single crystals of ice and ice is basically a mineral that melts at a lower temperature than other minerals do.” In other words, snow has all of the basic components of a mineral.

All minerals:

– are naturally occurring: Snowflakes form naturally when water freezes in cold air.

– are inorganic: Snowflakes aren’t carbon compounds. They’re inorganically formed.

– have a definable, or definite chemical composition: Snowflakes are made of one material; H2O.

– have an ordered internal structure: Snowflakes have a distinct arrangement of atoms in a lattice.

– are homogenous: Snowflakes are made of ice and are the same through and through.

– are solid: Ice is definitely solid.


Growing Snowflakes in the Lab 

California Institute of Technology Professor of Physics, Kenneth Libbrecht, has been called part physicist, part artist. He studies the molecular dynamics of crystal growth, including how ice crystals grow from water vapor. And he’s been creating snowflakes under controlled conditions, inside a homemade snowflake-creation-chamber, for decades. He’s made thousands of them. And he’s written several books on the subject; each containing jaw-dropingly remarkable photos of his lab-created snowflakes.


Snowflakes Can Get Pretty Big 

Though supporting evidence is limited, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the largest aggregate snowflake ever reported fell in Fort Keogh, Montana in January of 1887 and (allegedly) was 15 Inches (38.1 cm) wide and 8 inches (20.32 cm) thick. The rancher who spotted it described it as “larger than milk pans.”

Photo at top: Photos from the late 1800s, taken by Wilson ‘Snowflake’ Bentley, are stored in the Smithsonian Archives. Photo Credit: Wilson A. Bentley; Smithsonian Institution.

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

3 Responses

  1. James M Schaefer says:

    Richard calls attention to the snow crystal based on his familiarity with several authoritative sources. The form of solid precipitation takes is subject to temperature and moisture conditions in supercooled clouds where frozen particles form.
    Six-sided snow crystals are indeed the most aesthetically pleasing symmetrical forms of solid precipitation among those recognized by the International Snow Classification system developed in the 1950s. The ten forms of frozen precipitation are: Hexagonal plates, Stellars, Columns, Needles, Spatial Dendrites, Capped Columns, Irregular Snow Crystals, Graupel, Sleet and Hail. (V.J. Schaefer and J. Day) Field Guide to the Atmosphere 1981 Appendix 1 pg 321). It is not the case that all frozen precipitation falls as beautiful six-sided stellar snow crystals. The forms depend on the cloud environment. But for sure stellar snow crystals are NOT rectangular or eight-sided as we often see in commercial illustrations of “snow” and on clothing especially winter sweaters with 8 or 16 pointed “stellar crystals.”
    Supercooled clouds in nature can be converted into snow crystals by the introduction of cloud nuclei — a process that can me accelerated by introducing dry ice or silver-iodide under certain conditions. Successful (GE) laboratory experiments with both dry ice and silver-iodide took place in 1946 by Vincent J Schaefer and Bernard Vonnegut. Cloud seeding first took place in natural clouds in November 1946 by Schaefer. Photomicrographic replicas using “Formvar” — a type of plastic was mastered in the 1940s at the GE laboratory. Decades later Dr. Libbrecht has been able to demonstrate the growth and photo record of magnificent stellar crystals in his CalTech lab. All a far cry from the pioneering work of Wilson Bentley whose photographic record of hundreds of stellar snow crystals were made under extenuating circumstances at his outdoor Vermont setup in the late 1800s!

  2. Phil Fitzpatrick says:

    Thank you for this enlightening article. I greatly enjoyed it.


  3. Sally says:

    Thank you for this interesting explanation of one of God’s amazing creations! We are in awe each Christmas when we put our Gorham silver snowflakes on our tree, capturing a bit of this beauty into our home!

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