From time immemorial, the snowflake has been the subject of mystery and enchantment, but some of the facts about snowflakes might just surprise you. For instance, when you see a snowflake falling, did you ever imagine that a tiny bit of you might have helped form that snowflake?
How it begins
Snowflakes begin their life as water vapor in the air. Each time you exhale, the water vapors from your breath disperse into the atmosphere. Of course, there are many other ways vapor gets into the air, such as plant transpiration and evaporation from large bodies of water.
When the air turns colder, the water it holds changes (or condenses) from vapor to liquid. Close the surface of the earth, this liquid may be in the form of dew on fields and grass. When the vapor turns to liquid high above the earth, each droplet of ‘dew’ falls on one of the minuscule dust particles that float throughout the atmosphere. These droplets group together to become clouds.
When the temperature in the cloud drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, a single droplet will freeze and turn into a tiny particle of ice. The water vapor around this ice condenses onto it’s surface and causes it to grow. As the crystals grow, the pattern of the snowflake forms.
Flat sides and sharp corners
Picture a thick stop sign. This is called a hexagonal prism and is the most basic and simple shape of snowflakes. As more vapor condenses onto the surfaces of this prism, tiny branches form from each of the six corners. Because they are exposed to the same random environmental conditions, they grow at the same speed and in a similar manner. In colder conditions, the corners will be sharper, the snowflake grows faster and the six branches may sprout new branches to create patterns that are more multifaceted and elaborate. In a warmer environment, the crystals grow quickly and tend to form into smoother and simpler shapes.
The temperature changes in the different areas of the clouds have a major impact on the growth pattern of the snowflake. The different types of crystals that form depend on the temperature in which they are grown.
• 25-32 F - crystals form into thin hexagonal plates and stars.
• 15-24 F - they may form slender needles and hollow columns.
• 10-14 F - the crystals again grow into stars and sector plates, or hexagons with indentations.
• 3-9 F – many branches sprout to create lacy hexagonal shapes, called dendrites.
When the temperature drops to around -22 F, the crystals may form a combination of columns and plates. These are just a few of the more than 15 types of snowflake formations; others include capped columns, bullet rosettes, and rimmed or triangular crystals.
The amount of water vapor that is in the air determines the level of humidity. More water vapor means a wetter environment. In a humid setting, shapes tend to be very complex, while drier air produces simpler formations.
More interesting snowflake facts
-It takes over 180 billion molecules to make up a single snowflake
-A falling snowflake that looks like it is spinning is more symmetrical than a snowflake that falls sideways.
-Snowflakes are usually about ½ inch across but in 1887, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, Fort Keogh, Montana recorded the largest snowflake ever at a whopping 15 inches across and 8 inches thick.
-Snow is not white, but translucent, which means it does not absorb light, but reflects it. The color white is not the absence of color, but the combination of all of the colors in our color spectrum. The sun is the original source of ‘white light.’ A blanket of snow is actually billions of tiny ice prisms. The bright rays of this ‘white light,’ or sunlight, bounce off the facets of those prisms and returns to our eyes as the color white.
-The snow capital of the US is Stampede Pass, Washington, where an average of 430 inches of snow falls each year.
Who's who in snowflake history
- Johannes Kepler published an essay called ‘On the Six-Cornered Snowflake’ in 1611. This essay was the first piece of research published that described the six-sided symmetry of a snowflake.
-In 1635, René Descartes published 'Les Meteores,' where he discussed the many forms of snowflakes and how they attain their intricate patterns.
-‘Micrographia,’ published in 1665 by Robert Hooke, was the first bestseller in the scientific world. Hooke took the new science of microscopy, and used it to study snowflakes. In his publication, he detailed sketches of snow crystals that showed their complex structure and intricate patterns when observed under a microscope.
-In the 1800’s, Wilson A. Bentley, also known as Snowflake Bentley, was the first to do serious research on snowflakes. He compiled information over a 40-year period and published ‘Snow Crystals,’ which categorized the snowflakes into an organized system based on the shape of the snowflake. Modern meteorologists still use this system today.
-In 1954, Ukichiro Nakaya, a Japanese physicist published ‘Snow Crystals: Natural and Artificial.’ He photographed thousands of snow crystals and created a controlled environment in order to grow his own snow crystals. Nakaya is recognized as being the first to create an artificial snowflake.
The next time you find yourself out in the cold, take a deep breath. When you exhale, think about that white plume of air that disappears into the atmosphere. Any one of those little essences of you just might drift up into the air and help to create part of the dazzling patterns that make up a snowflake.
You can find more facts about snowflakes at snowcrytals.com.