The Scientific Classification of Snow
Mother Nature delights us
with some of the most beautiful art imaginable throughout the year. This
is especially true during the winters we enjoy in northern climates.
Mother Nature is also the ultimate scientist and there is a tremendous degree of
scientific principle associated with the formation of a snow crystal. On
this page, we will only be able to look at the very basics regarding the science
behind snow crystals, but before I do, we need to make certain that everyone
understands the basic difference between a snow flake and a snow crystal.
Snow flakes can be nothing more than
one, individual snow crystal, but more often than not, are made up of several,
sometimes hundreds of snow crystals. The example shown here on the right is what many people
would call a big, fluffy snow flake.
People have been studying snow
crystals for hundreds and likely thousands of years. I
am certain that long before the dawn of recorded history, someone must have
taken the time to look closely at these frozen elements that fall from the sky
and noticed the beautiful symmetric structure that makes up a snow crystal.
One of my snow crystal heroes lived about 150 years ago. He was one of the most interesting pioneers who built an amazing photographic
collection of snow crystals. Indeed, he was not even a formally trained
scientist, rather a farmer by trade who had cultivated an interest in
photography and in particular, the snow crystal. His name was Wilson A.
Bentley and he lived in Vermont back in the 1800's. You can learn more
about his amazing work through the
Buffalo Museum of Science, home to his original collection.
of the first scientists to work at classifying the different types of snow
crystals was a Japanese researcher by the name of Ukichiro Nakaya. He
worked in a laboratory environment "growing" snow crystals under various
conditions of temperature and moisture. The results of his extensive
research were compiled into what we know today as the Nakaya Diagram, which
summaries the conditions necessary in the atmosphere to produce the several
varieties of snow crystal he studied.
Nakaya's work was expanded upon by another set of Japanese researchers, Magono
and Lee, who conducted extensive field work to further refine the association
between moisture, temperature and snow crystal type.
They went on to develop an extensive classification technique for the wide array
of snow crystal types. Their work serves as a basis for classification today.
Click on the charts on the left and you will see the numerous types of crystals.
When looking through my photo gallery, see if you can match the photo with its
I mentioned a "sweet spot" in
temperature range that is best for dendritic crystal growth in referring to
Magono's chart above. Indeed, the temperature range between -10°C and
-20°C is a perfect environment to get a tremendous variety of beautiful
crystals. If you can combine those temperature conditions in the clouds
where crystals grow and keep winds very light so that the crystals do not get
destroyed by getting banged and bounced around too much on their flight down to
earth, you can end up with
wonderful bounty of crystals.
of my best sampling days occurred under those conditions. I have displayed
the atmospheric temperature and wind sounding taken on January 14, 2009 at
Buffalo, NY, about 15 miles from my sampling location, in the image on the
right. Click on it to see the atmospheric conditions. Below you can
click on a few
examples of crystals I captured on that day, it was one of the best days I can