The Beauty of Snow Crystals

 The weather has been up and down this winter, but I am still enjoying one specialty that comes with the season: snow crystals. Commonly referred to as snowflakes, snow crystals make up the various forms of frozen precipitation that fall in the winter. The crystals come in many geometric designs and different atmospheric conditions yield differently shaped crystals. Magnified, all snow crystals are beautiful, with some being more elaborate and delicate than others.

A snow crystal begins as a droplet of water that nucleates and freezes around a mineral or organic particle in saturated winter clouds. Additional water within the cloud attaches to the nucleus and the crystal begins to grow. Snow crystals grow in three-dimentional hexigonal shapes and are classified within a number of different groups including columns, needles, triangles, and stellar dendrites, among others. The shape of a snow crystal is due largly upon the humidity and temperature of the cloud when it is formed. Patterns of growth coming off the nucleus are due to changes in temperature and humidity as the crystal falls towards the ground.

Winter in the Finger Lakes Region brings a number of different types of snow, including diamond dust crystals which are tiny crystals no larger than the diameter of a hair and may fall when temperatures are bitter cold. Stellar dentrites are also common, which are the six-branched crystals that usually come to mind at the mention of snowflakes. Elaborate fernlike stellar dendrites have leafy, fern-like patterns on their branches, and are large and quite obvious while they slowly drift down from the clouds. Twelve-branch crystals are produced when two dendrite crystals collide and stick together. 

Experts agree that it is unlikely that any two snow crystals are alike as conditions through which each individual crystal passes will never be exactly replicated for identical growth. To understand this better think about the 10 quintillion water molecules contained within each flake and what the chance of each crystal growing in exactly the same pattern as that of another crystal are. The odds are very, very, very small.

It’s fun to think that, just like people, every snow crystal is different from every other.  It helps make the world seem both larger and smaller. Catching stellar dendrite crystals on our finger tips, my daughter and I like to observe them close up, the finer details of atmospheric art more elaborate and beautiful under our magnifying glasses.


By Gabrielle L. Wheeler