What are Snowflakes?
Snowflakes are accumulations of millions of tiny ice crystals that crash together and fall from the clouds at very low air temperatures.
Just like our fingerprints, no two snowflakes are alike. Imagine! There have never been any identical snowflakes since the very first snow fell upon this world. Snowflakes vary in size, shape and patterns.
How are snowflakes formed?
Snow is formed in the clouds when the temperature is between -20 to -40 degrees Celsius.
The process by which snowflakes are formed is called accretion, which simply means the process of growth through gradual expansion or build-up. This is exactly what happens in the clouds when snowflakes are formed.
Snowflakes fall from the sky in the winter season when the temperatures are so low that the moisture in the sky freezes forming ice crystals. The ice crystals in the clouds build up together forming snowflakes that are released from the clouds when the temperatures are low enough.
The Different Patterns of Snowflakes
The shape of snowflakes is determined by the altitude and temperatures at which they are formed.
Although every snow crystal is unique and has perfect geometrical shape, all snowflakes have six-sided patterns.There are basically six patterns of snowflakes;
Stars are the most common type of snowflake. Besides being fragile and delicate, they are also of lower mass than most types of snowflakes. They are formed under freezing temperatures of -15 degrees Celsius. In some cases, most likely in heavy snow storms, multiple stars may combine together and form huge stars. These large stars that are formed thick and complete are never sighted as snow crystals seem to break up and get damaged along the way.
Bullets are formed when column shaped snowflakes diminish or shrink in size attaining sharp six-sided edges. Shown here is a two-dimensional picture. Bullet shaped crystals look like bullets, cylindrical with a sharp nose and often contain 3 or four bullets connected together in the center. They can be irregular as well.
Columns come in different sizes- from long to short and thin to thick. Columns may appear hexagonal and may be capped. In rare cases, the shape of a column may appear bent or curved. They are types of snowflakes with higher density as compared to other types of snowflakes. Despite their high density, columns are generally smaller than most types of snowflakes. Columns are formed when the atmosphere is relatively drier and ranging from temperatures of 15 to -25 degrees Celsius.
These are snowflakes of high intensity and are formed in extreme temperatures of -10 to -5 degrees Celsius.Some needles appear to be vacant inside while others are solid.
These are basically half-formed stars. Plates are in the process of growing into stars but are in a crisis where there is no water vapor in the sky to help them crystallize and form the limbs of the star. Plates are likely to be formed at temperatures of between -10 to -20 degrees Celsius, where there is shortage of water vapor in the atmosphere.
Hexagonal plates are six sided as their name suggests and they are smooth and flattened just like a plate. They may be simple and elegant without any design such as the one showcased above, which may also be known as a prism, or beautifully patterned, with intricate designs. Some hexagonal plates are embellished with a star shape found in the middle of it.
The word stellar means; cosmological and has something to do with space. Stellar snowflakes are flat and radiate going outward the snowflake just like a bright star in space. This is where it gets its name.
Dendrites are three-dimensional and complete snow crystals since they are formed in severely very low temperatures of -20 to -25 degrees Celsius. In these temperatures, the atmosphere thrives with a lot of moisture present that enables the snow crystal to be built up entirely. They form multiple arms that all connect to a hub.
Many people associate this particular six-sided shape to snowflakes. This isn’t a surprise because this is the most common type of snow crystal.
Most snow crystals have a bumpy ride tumbling down from the clouds. They may encounter trees, roofs of houses and other fellow snow crystals that they may hit or smack into. This causes uneven breaks and damage to their pattern, causing them to be asymmetrical.
How do scientists know the shape and structure of snowflakes
Snowflakes have breath-taking and unbelievable patterns and structures. Scientists can examine and tell the structural composition of snowflakes by placing a clear plate filled with a chemical compound in the open. When a snowflake lands in the plate, the chemical immediately hardens the snowflakes so when it melts, a clear glass structure of the snowflake can be seen.
Did you know? Fun Facts about Snowflakes
1. The largest snowflake ever recorded was in Ft. Keough, Montana in 1887. It was said to be 15 inches in diameter!
2. The color of snow may not always be white. In some glacier regions, rich fertile soils and algae that may be present in the moraines-these are ridges or mounds that are sculptured by a moving glacier-may cause the snow to appear as green, red or brown.
3. Some people have a phobia for snow called Chionophobia!
4. It is said that Eskimos, who live in ice cold places where snow is on the weather forecast most of the time , have about 100 words for snow!
5. There are two types of snow-dry snow that is favorable for winter sports like skiing and wet snow that is perfect for a snowball fight!
6. A skier may accidentally cause a large avalanche. Avalanches are large masses of snow located up a hilly area that may suddenly come flying down when triggered.
7. There have been five ice ages in the last million years throughout the history of the earth. The last one was about 10,000 years ago.
8. About 12% of the Earth’s surface is covered in ice.
9. The thickest snow was measured in the ice-cold continent of Antarctica and it was about 5 km deep!
10. The average snowflakes fall at an average speed of 3.1 miles per hour!
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on January 29, 2015:
Very informative and helpful. I didn't know about the different kinds of snowflakes than I don't regularly see. Maybe I can find some outside, since it'll be snowing this weekend.
a on October 28, 2014:
this was helpful
Asshole Dickface on February 09, 2014:
Marie Hab. on October 11, 2013:
They are beautiful
Rehana Stormme (author) on July 02, 2012:
@ ssat, thanks for the comment! I live in the tropics and haven't actually seen snow either. That's why it's even more fascinating for me to study snow flakes up close.
ssat on January 24, 2012:
Interesting hub, I live in a desert city and had never actually seen snowfall or snow, but I can only imagine what it feels like.