Are 2 snowflakes ever the same?

Snowflakes: Perfectly shaped snowflake on a green leaf.
View larger at EarthSky Community Photos. | Sheryl R Garrison in Southern Alberta, Canada, captured this lovely closeup image of a snowflake on November 9, 2022. She said: “Every winter I try to photograph snowflakes in honor of Wilson (Snowflake) Bentley, the first person to photograph a single ice crystal in 1885. While he would capture them on black velvet, I enjoy hunting for them on natural surfaces. This snowflake was photographed on a raspberry leaf. The temperature was -18 C.” Thank you, Sheryl!

Snowflakes come in all different shapes

Snowflakes are crystals. Indeed, you can see them in many different shapes if you let them fall on a black surface and look at them with a magnifying glass.

But, not all snowflakes are the lacy or star-type snowflakes we enjoy in pictures. In fact, a range of different basic shapes form at different temperatures, so the kind of snowflake depends on the temperature of the cloud in which it formed. For example, relatively warm clouds yield lacy or starry snowflakes. On the other hand, very cold clouds yield snowflakes known as “columns.”

In fact, we’ve all heard that no two snowflakes are alike, and that’s true of the star-shaped ones.

On the other hand, column-type snowflakes have simple, solid prism shapes – much as if you cut a section out of a lead pencil. While the ratio of their length to thickness can vary, column-type snowflakes don’t have a complicated structure. Many are very much alike.

By the way, even these column snowflakes aren’t identical when you look closely – at the level of the snowflake’s molecules.

A few years back, we talked to Charles Knight at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. And he said:

I don’t know why people pick on snowflakes; are any two geraniums alike? Or kittens, or mountains or asteroids?

Available now! 2023 EarthSky lunar calendar. A unique and beautiful poster-sized calendar showing phases of the moon every night of the year! Makes a great gift.

Bottom line: Not all snowflakes are the beautiful lacy or star shaped snowflakes we see in pictures, and no two of them are alike. Some are basic shapes known as columns. It all depends on the temperature of the cloud where they formed.

Read more: Michael Peres on how to photograph snowflakes

November 24, 2022

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