The microscopic beauty of our recent snow

TheWxMeister Wonders

If you’ve ever tried to catch a snowflake on your jacket, glove, or arm, you’ve likely noticed that no two snowflakes are the same, and they can come in very different shapes and sizes. More specifically, we’re talking about snow crystals that can be anything from the typical dendrites most of us think of, to plates and even columns!

The shape of an ice crystal that forms in and falls from the sky is mostly dependent on the temperature and humidity in which the formation or growth occurs. The first thing that needs to occur is the freezing of really cold water drops onto a dust particle or bit of pollen. You see, in order for water to freeze to ice, it needs something to freeze onto to start the process. We call these starting points nucleation centers. In most situations, a little bit of dust, impurity, or even little vibrations in water provide nucleation centers for the water to freeze onto. Without these special particles, water can stay in a supercooled state, actually being below freezing, but still liquid.

This simplified chart from the University of Montana shows the relationship of temperature and humidity to the type of ice crystal that forms in the atmosphere.
From Left to right: solid plate, column, stellar plate 1, stellar plate 2, thin plate, dendrite
Molecular structure of water in solid state. Image courtesy of Cal-Tech University

The symmetry in snow crystals is six-fold, or hexagonal, and arises from the arrangement of water molecules when water freezes. As this ice crystal model spins around, you can see the hexagons in the structure. This clearly shows that ice crystals are three-dimensional structures.

A snow crystal begins with the formation of a small hexagonal plate, and branches sprout from the six corners when the crystal grows larger. As it tumbles through the clouds, the crystal experiences ever-changing temperature and humidity, and each change makes the arms grow a bit differently. So, the exact shape of an individual snow crystal is a result of the path it took as it fell through clouds. Because each of the six arms all took the same path, they experienced the same temperatures and humidities at the same times. Even though the arms are growing independently of each other, they do end up resembling a symmetrical shape. Here’s why no two snowflakes or snow crystals are exactly alike – they don’t take the same path through the clouds!

Sarah Malerich, a school teacher in Elbert County School District C-2, and an avid photographer, shared some photographs with me from snowflakes that fell on Friday and Monday, about an hour northeast of Colorado Springs between Elizabeth and Kiowa.

“Capturing snowflakes is one of the most challenging yet rewarding things I’ve attempted to do with my photography,” said Malerich. “It requires specific conditions with large snowflakes and little to no wind, which is a challenge out here on the prairie.”

Malerich uses a Canon 760D camera with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm lens that she flips backwards for reverse lens macro.

“I have the guts to flip my lens around to achieve the reverse lens macro effect with the help of a reverse mount converter ring helps,” she said.

“I lay out different knit items like scarves and hats that have enough texture to catch the snowflakes as they’re falling and that provide different colors for a variety of backgrounds,” Malerich said.

The teacher describes the process as time intensive.

“It just takes a lot of patience and experimentation waiting for perfect snowflakes to fall onto the weave and then manually focusing on the tiny crystalline structures since the lens isn’t connected to the camera’s electronics,” she said.

“In the end, it’s worth it to glimpse into the microscopic world around us and capture each stunning and unique snowflake,” said Malerich. “It’s so fascinating!”

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