You’ve never seen anything like this

Posted: December 25, 2019 in Did you know?

This macrophotograph of a snowflake shows the classic, six-sided structure that we’ve come to associate with the tiny winter marvels. Until the advent of macrophotography and microphotography in the late 1800s, it was impossible to study the structure of snowflakes they melted too quickly to be accurately sketched under a microscope. Enter Wilson ‘Snowflake’ Bentley.

snowflakeA farmer and self-trained scientist from Jericho, Vermont, Bentley was the first person to successfully photograph an individual snowflake. Over his lifetime, he would produce over 5,000 different images, a feat that led him to be the first to observe that every snowflake is unique. He backed up his observation with some math and meteorology as well. He understood that snowflakes form as they fall through the sky, and their growth and appearance are shaped by hundreds of changing conditions, from altitude, temperature, humidity, and more. The combinations multiply exponentially until there are more design possibilities than molecules on Earth.

snowflakeformationA snowflake is a single ice crystal that has achieved a sufficient size, and may have amalgamated with others, then falls through the Earth’s atmosphere as snow. Each flake nucleates around a dust particle in supersaturated air masses by attracting supercooled cloud water droplets, which freeze and accrete in crystal form. Complex shapes emerge as the flake moves through differing temperature and humidity zones in the atmosphere, such that individual snowflakes differ in detail from one another, but may be categorized in eight broad classifications and at least 80 individual variants. The main constituent shapes for ice crystals, from which combinations may occur, are needle, column, plate, and rime. Snow appears white in color despite being made of clear ice. This is due to diffuse reflection of the whole spectrum of light by the small crystal facets of the snowflakes.

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