Last Updated on November 6, 2021
The science of snowflakes is a perplexing one. To the common eye, most snowflakes’ symmetry makes them look familiar. But the hard cold truth is, it’s nearly impossible to find two snowflakes that are an exact copy of each other. Plus even if we would start to count, there are innumerable of them and this renders any effort pointless.
This makes us wonder; what exactly makes snowflakes unique?
Well, it’s all about the journey, really. Let’s dig deeper so you can understand snowflakes’ unique creation.
First, the basics
Snowflakes are ice crystals that form when water freezes in extremely cold conditions. Now, atmospheric conditions vary. In some places, there’s more water and lower temperatures. In other places there will be some water and winds…are we together up to here?
Another good example of varying atmospheric conditions in your house. The room that has a heater turned on cannot share the same conditions as the cold basement full of clutter. Its differences in atmospheric conditions that make snowflakes come out in different shapes.
The process begins when water turns into a six-pointed shape (hexagon) from a gas state. Now, the first-stage molecules start to fall. Along the way, each will encounter different water molecules, different temperatures, or even fall on different hexagon flakes. Upon bonding, each snowflake will take a new shape that is determined by the path of their journey.
There are trillions of snowflakes. That means there are also trillions types of them since each has a distinctive shape. Can you think of anything else in the world that comes in trillions of unique shapes? Let us know when you find one.
How scientists study them
As we said, no two snowflakes have identical shapes. And obviously, scientists would reach the end of their lives before studying several millions of snowflakes. So to make their work easier, they study and cluster them based on their similarities. Common snowflake groups include needle, fernlike, stellar, dendrites, plates….etc.
Wilson Bentley, a citizen of the 1800 century started his obsession with snowflakes in 1855. He was the first person to have ever taken a picture of a snowflake. With his microscope attached to a huge camera, he was able to showcase the many dissimilar shapes of these freezing molecules.
Bentley studied snowflakes for 50 whopping years. Because of his obsession, he never left his parents’ home, never married, and practically had no other life. We can only imagine, right? Of course.
Different snowflakes account for kinds of snow
Each snowflake comes with its own shape and that means snow will be formed differently. For instance, plates don’t fall on the ground the same way as dendrites. So the layer and depth of snow is going to vary depending on the type of snowflake.
Most people prefer sledging and skiing on powder. Why? Because it is soft and when you fall on it, it won’t hurt a lot. Powder forms when dendrites hit frozen ground.
Do you want to make little snowmen and pelt each other with snowballs? Granular snow is the best. It forms when snowflakes land on frozen water droplets. It’s dense and wetter and more of it renders road and rails impassable.
Slush is melting snow and people can easily walk on it without serious consequences. It forms when snow lands on warm ground and starts to turn into water. Crust, on the other hand, forms from totally frozen snow and can be hurtful on bare hands and feet.
Fun fact: snowflakes are transparent. They are not white. The whiteness is simply the lights reflected from the dendrites and plate snowflakes.
So the next time snow comes round, you can take some time and study as many snowflakes as you can. And remember, these are little delicate things and melt quickly. So be gentle and work fast.