Snowflakes – a natural phenomenon explained by science

What are snowflakes, and how do they form?

A snowflake is a single crystal of ice that has grown sufficiently large to be combined with other crystals. The crystal then falls through the Earth’s atmosphere as snow. Each flake is formed around a small amount of mineral or dust particles in supersaturated air masses. It attracts supercooled cloud water droplets and then freezes to make crystals.

Complex shapes result from the flake’s ability to travel through various temperature and humidity zones within the atmosphere.

Each snowflake is unique. They can still be divided into eight main categories, with at least 80 variations. Ice crystals are made up of four main components. These combinations include rime, plate, column, and column.

Snow is transparent ice but appears white. This is because of the scattered reflection of sunlight through the tiny crystal facets in snowflakes.

Snowflakes – a natural phenomenon explained by science

Formation of Snowflake and Ice Crystals

Snowflakes can form in moist and sub-freezing environments around organic or mineral particles. They begin with the net accretion and formation of hexagonal-shaped crystals. We use the primary electrostatic forces to create cohesive forces.

Snowflake Nucleus

For a droplet to act as a nucleus, it must have an aerosol particle (or “ice nucleus”) in it.

It is much more common for the particles that make ice nuclei to be found in cores than those that form liquid cloud droplets. However, it is still not clear what makes them so efficient. It is possible that clays, desert dust, and biological particles can also be useful. However, it is not clear how much.

Snowflakes – a natural phenomenon explained by science
Image courtesy of alexey kljatov

Artificial nuclei are particles made of dry ice and iodide-silver. These are used for stimulating cloud seeding. Experiments have shown cloud droplets are only homogeneous at temperatures below -35° Celsius (-31° F).

Snowflake Growth

In supersaturated environments, a droplet can freeze and grow. This is where the air is below the freezing point. This will cause the droplet to grow by releasing water molecules (vapour) into the crystals on the ice surface.

Because of their sheer numbers, water droplets are much more common than ice crystals. Water droplets can grow up to several millimetres in length, while crystals can only grow for a few micrometres. This process is understood as the Wegener-Bergeron-Findeisen process.

Snowflakes – a natural phenomenon explained by science

The depletion in water vapour causes droplets to become vaporized. These droplets become ice crystals. Large crystals, due to their mass, fall through the atmosphere and collide to form aggregates. These aggregates are a type of ice particle which falls on the Earth and ground.

The largest snowflake ever recorded.

Guinness World Records lists the largest ever snowflake as of January 1887, Fort Keogh (Montana). One was 15 inches in diameter (38 cm).

Although the farmer’s account is not credible, it was confirmed that sizes of three to four inches were present. One crystal measuring 17.91mm in size was found. Graupel refers to snowflakes that are encapsulated within rime-form balls.

Snowflake Color

While ice is transparent or clear by itself, snow can often appear white due to diffuse reflections of the full spectrum of sun rays through the small crystal facets of its snowflakes.

Snowflakes – a natural phenomenon explained by science

Snowflake Shapes

It will be determined by the temperature and humidity of the snowflake at the time it forms. At temperatures below -2° Celsius (28° F), snowflakes can form triangular forms.

The most common snow particles can be visible as snowflakes, but they can also appear in photographs.

It is unlikely that the snowflakes will ever be identical due to the 1019 (10quintillions) of water molecules they contain. The environment’s temperature and humidity affect the snowflake growth rate and patterns. Snowflakes can appear identical under controlled conditions but may have different molecular structures.

Snowflakes – a natural phenomenon explained by science

Although snowflakes cannot be perfectly symmetrical, they can often have a sixfold symmetry. The hexagonal structure of ice’s crystals is what creates the symmetry. The snowflake now has a very tiny or minute hexagon.

Each of the six “arms” (or dendrites) that make up the snowflake can grow separately or in isolation from each hexagon corner. Each arm can develop independently. The snowflake can be affected by tiny temperature and humidity fluctuations. This dynamic microenvironment is the place where the snowflake forms.

Snowflakes – a natural phenomenon explained by science

Because the snowflake is almost identical in its micro-environment, each arm grows nearly precisely.

However, just because all your arms are growing in the same micro-environment doesn’t mean they will. Some crystal forms may have different growth mechanisms that can impact how quickly each crystal’s surface area expands.

Snowflakes – a natural phenomenon explained by science

Research shows that 0.1% of snowflakes are bestowed with a six-fold symmetrical shape. Twelve branches of snowflakes are rare; they maintain the six-fold symmetry.

Snowflake classification

Snowflakes come in many different shapes, so it’s difficult to say if they are alike. Even though snowflakes can be made almost identically in a lab, it’s unlikely that they will ever be found in the wild.

Wilson Alwyn Bentley was the first to attempt to find identical snowflakes. He took thousands of photos using a microscope. He could photograph thousands of them using a microscope, which led him to discover the many types of snowflakes we now know.

Snowflakes – a natural phenomenon explained by science

How do snowflakes form?

A snowflake is formed when a very cold droplet or droplet of water freezes on airborne pollen or dust particle. This results in an ice crystal. Water vapour forms new crystals by freezing on the ice crystal.

Because they reflect the crystal’s inner structure, snowflakes’ ice crystals can be symmetrical or patterned. Crystallization is the process by which they are arranged in predetermined places.

Temperature and humidity play a significant role in the basic shape of an Ice Crystal. At 5°F, you will see flat, plate-like crystals. At 23°F, you will see needle-like ice crystals.

Each snowflake’s arm is determined by the atmosphere around it as it falls to Earth.

One crystal may begin to develop arms. One crystal may grow arms. It could still be affected by temperature or humidity changes, which can occur in seconds or minutes.

The ice crystal’s six-sided shape is preserved. The six sides and six arms can be branched in different directions. Because they are exposed to identical atmospheric conditions, the arms are very similar.

Snowflakes – a natural phenomenon explained by science

Just like a fingerprint, no two snowflakes are alike.

Individual snowflakes travel on different paths, so they experience different atmospheric conditions. Each snowflake is unique, and all look the same.


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Snowflake images courtesy of Olga & Alexey Photography

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