by Amy Schimetz - Interpreter and Lake Metigoshe Outdoor Learning Center Coordinator
People often look outside in the winter and simply comment, whether good or bad, on the snow. However, many don’t give much thought what snow is made of, how it’s made or why there are both large and small flakes. The science behind snow is fascinating.
Snowflakes are made of ice crystals forming around tiny bits of dirt that were carried up into the atmosphere by wind. When the dirt particles reach clouds where temperatures are below freezing, ice crystals form around them and create snowflakes. Each snowflake is six-sided because of the shape and bonding of water molecules. A snowflake can be made from as many as 200 ice crystals. As the snow crystals grow, they become heavier and fall toward the ground.
It is said that no two snowflakes are alike, but they can be classified into types of crystals: needles, columns, plates, columns capped with plates, dendrites and stars. The type of crystal depends upon humidity and temperature present during formation. That’s why when it’s very cold and snowing, the flakes are small and when it’s closer to 32 degrees, the flakes are larger.
Take a closer look to see if you can classify some snowflakes. Since they melt so quickly you need to freeze a dark piece of paper or cloth by leaving it outside for several minutes. Put some snowflakes on the dark surface and examine them, perhaps with a magnifier. Don't expect to easily find a perfect six-sided snowflake. They occur less than 25 percent of the time because snowflakes have a bumpy, difficult journey on their way to earth. Each flake is buffeted by wind, water and other snowflakes. However, with persistence you'll see some beautiful examples.