Friday, January 23, 2015


In the realm of science, there are many things which are not fully understood. The mechanism behind the formation of a snowflake crystal is one of these things.

It would seem that something so common would have been completely figured out by this time; after all, scientists have even studied atoms, the building blocks of all matter in the universe. But no, snowflakes remain a mysterious subject.

So what have we figured out about snowflakes so far? They form when water vapor condenses around an ice particle, and they form six sides due to the shape of an individual water molecule. But there's still a lot we don't know.

This snowflake has definite, albeit slightly imperfect, symmetry.
One problem with our current knowledge is that snowflakes tend to form six-sided shapes which are symmetrical. The odds of two snowflakes sharing the same pattern is unimaginably small, and yet the snowflake itself contains 6 copies of the same pattern. Why does each arm develop the same way? Scientists aren't entirely sure.

Most snowflakes either form with defects or become damaged from the fall.
Although this snowflake is thin and hard to see,
it has a beautiful, complex pattern.
Another problem is that snowflakes aren't always flat, but can also form needles, columns, and prisms. Scientists have noticed that temperature and atmospheric conditions can predict what types of snowflakes will form, but they haven't explained how the process works.

Finally, during the STS-7 and STS-8 space shuttle missions, artificially grown snowflakes were shaped like sphere-like polyhedrons, instead of the flat shapes of snowflakes produced on earth. Are the shapes of snowflakes influenced by gravity? Scientists aren't entirely sure about that either.

Interestingly, not all snowflake crystals form with 6 sides - some rare ones form with 3 or 12 sides. In one snowstorm, there were tons of large crystals which appeared to have 7 to 10 sides, but were probably malformed 12 sided crystals. Scientists aren't sure what conditions result in the formation of 3-sided or 12-sided snowflakes.

Whether scientists understand them or not, snowflakes are amazing things. In this post, I included some photos of snowflakes I've taken this winter using my macro photography technique.

Notice that they aren't all perfect - some are broken, some have only partly formed. The perfect snowflakes shown in magazines are not as easy to find as you might think.

What types of snowflakes have you seen?

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