By Lime Green Giraffe Social Director, Evelyn H.

Delicate. Sharp. Intricate. Playful. Charming. These are the words that come to mind when I think of snowflakes. They are droplets of water tossed about in the atmosphere, where biting winds carve them into complex and captivating works of art. They flutter to the ground, silent and shy, as we admire them with wide eyes.

Snowflakes have perplexed humankind for hundreds of years. How could something that lovely be created by chance, and how could each one be completely unique? We try to catch and study them, but they melt into puddles at the warm touch of our fingers. It’s frustrating, but it makes them all the more intriguing.

I think the science behind snowflake patterns is incredible. It’s hard to believe that this planet has such specific conditions that crystals can form and fall from the sky. I’ll describe the process of snowflakes forming in two steps:

Step one: A particle of dust and a freezing cold water droplet collide in the clouds, and they freeze together. This is known as the primary crystal. The atmospheric conditions (temperature, humidity, etc.) play a huge part in the fundamental structure of the primary crystal. This will determine to some extent  the final appearance of the snowflake.

Step two: As the crystal falls, other freezing water droplets begin to latch onto it. The arrangement of water molecules is dictated by the primary crystal. This pattern will continue as the snowflake falls, creating the six arms we commonly observe in snowflakes. 

The way these arms branch out heavily depends on a number of factors. The factors include how the whole crystal falls, the slight changes in temperature or humidity, and if the snowflake collides with something midair. For example, the arms may branch out one way, and then a change in temperature seconds later may cause them to branch out in a different way. This is just one factor that causes snowflakes to be so unique!

So, what’s stopping snowflakes from continuing to grow bigger and bigger? After all, they’re so tiny! The answer to this question lies in the clouds where the snowflake is formed, and the conditions those clouds provide. If the cloud was very cold, the snowflake would be very intricate. If the cloud had low humidity, the snowflake would be composed of flat, hexagonal crystals. Snowflakes can have feathery, needle-like, box-shaped or even jagged branches, and certain kinds of branches grow faster than others. In short, the size of the snowflake depends on the branches it has, and its branches are determined by the conditions when it was formed.

The man who first discovered that no two snowflakes are alike went by the name Wilson “Snowflake” A. Bentley. Bentley was a pioneer in the work of photomicrography (taking pictures of very small things), and on January 15, 1885, he took the world’s first photograph of a snowflake. Over the course of his life, Bentley took pictures of over 500 snowflakes and never found two that looked the same. To this day, his book “Snow Crystals” is still being printed and published.

Snowflakes are a stunning sight to behold, and they are crafted so carefully it’s almost impossible to believe. Humans have admired and studied them for many years, and they are a true symbol of joy and holiday cheer. The next time you look out your window and see snowflakes falling outside, remember how mind-bogglingly incredible they are.

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