Snowflake anatomy

Post by Jen Berlinghof

My family and I spent the beginning of the new year in the Northwoods. We wanted quiet. We wanted nature. Most of all, we wanted snow. As we started out on a snowshoe trek to a nearby river, tiny snowflakes settled on my son’s navy blue parka. They seemed to freeze on contact for only a few seconds, forming miniature constellations, before melting into temporary teardrop stains. The filigree of each flake in those hushed, fleeting moments fascinated both of my boys.

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While most of us would call this a snowflake, scientists define it more aptly as a snow crystal. A snow crystal forms in a cloud when water vapor converts directly into ice without making a pit stop at its liquid form. A marvelous snow crystal, like the one above, begins as a single hexagonal prism called a seed crystal. This seed crystal latches to a speck of dust before taking a trip through the cloud. The path the crystal takes on this journey determines what it will ultimately look like when it falls to the earth.

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As a snow crystal travels through a cloud, it encounters a variety of temperatures and humidity levels. As water vapor is continually converting to ice along this path, more crystals latch to the seed crystal, sprouting branches from each of its six corners and the snow crystal grows. Each individual crystal takes its own unique pathway through a cloud, its arms growing in synchrony, resulting in a one-of-a kind “snowflake” every time.

snowflake-copyright-dick-toddThe exact humidity level and temperature within the cloud as it forms determines the general shape and pattern of a snow crystal. Lower humidity typically yields a simple plate or block pattern, while higher humidity creates more ornate, branched crystals that come to mind when most of us think of snowflakes.

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Like a tree’s rings that tell the story of what was happening in the forest with each layer of growth, snow crystals grow from the inside out, too. Each new branch or plate tells the story of the cloud conditions.The wonder and mystery of falling snowflakes still intrigues the scientific world. Scientists are still puzzled about why snowflakes form such different shapes in these different meteorological conditions.

screen-shot-2017-01-30-at-11-50-48-amWith flurries predicted for these last few days of January, now is the perfect time to venture out into our Lake County Forest Preserves and experience our winter programs that take advantage of what nature offers when temperatures drop and snow accumulates. Be sure to check our Winter Sports Updates or call our Winter Sports Hotline at 847-968-3235 to check trail conditions for ice skating, sledding, ice fishing, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing. Go ahead—find some quiet, some nature, and hopefully some snow!

Aerial view of a snowy woodland. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

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About lakecountynature

Jen Berlinghof is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago and The National Outdoor Leadership School, as well as a Certified Interpretive Guide through The National Association of Interpretation. Her work as an outdoor guide and naturalist has taken her from the canyonlands of Utah to the shores of Lake Superior. Since 2003, she has been rediscovering nature near her hometown and working as an Environmental Educator for the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

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