A closer look at snowflakes in the Maine woods

I was shuffling through outdoor photos I’ve taken recently when I came across a few photos I took of snowflakes that had fallen on my cousin’s jacket during a recent hike. When I showed my editor, he didn’t believe it was a real snowflake at first. He’d never seen one up close. So I thought I’d share a few of the snowflake photos (and I hope to take more in the future) in a blog post, along with some information from reliable sources.

Have you ever heard the claim, “No two snowflakes are the same”?

While there’s no way to positively know (aside from examining every single snowflake to fall – before it melts), scientists believe that this statement is likely true because so many factors contribute to the shape of a snowflake.

It was a French philosopher and mathematician who created the first detailed description of snow crystal structure in 1637, according to a 2004 story published by National Geographic. His name was René Descartes, and all of his diagrams and descriptions were derived from observations with the naked eye.

“These were little plates of ice, very flat, very polished, very transparent, about the thickness of a sheet of rather thick paper…but so perfectly formed in hexagons, and of which the six sides were so straight, and the six angles so equal, that it is impossible for men to make anything so exact,” Descartes wrote.

In 1665, Robert Hooke published “Micrographia,” which contains sketches of a wide variety of items Hooke could view with the latest invention of the day, the microscope. Included in the volume are several snow crystal drawings, which for the first time revealed the complexity and intricate symmetry of snow crystal structure.

Today, we know a lot more about snowflakes.

In the 2007 book “Ice: the Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance,” Mariana Gosnell describes the way a snowflake forms within a cloud and as it falls.

“Between 27ºF and 32ºF, crystals take the form of six-sided plates. Below that, needles form. A few degrees colder yields hollow columns; chillier yet, fernlike stars,” according to a 2007 story published by National Geographic.

But that’s not the end of it. The crystals continue to grow as additional water molecules cluster on the crystals’ surfaces as they fall.

And there are other factors that determine what the snowflake will look like when it finally falls on the ground — or a person’s glove.

For example, humidity plays a role. According to the National Geographic story, drier air encourages grown across flat surfaces of a crystal, and humid air encourages grown at tips, edges and corners of a crystal. High humidity also leads to faster-growing and therefore more intricate crystals.

Then you have to take into account how fragile a snowflake is. As it falls, pieces may break off, leaving new surfaces for it to branch out from.

If you’re reading my post about snowflakes right now, odds are, you’re a little bored. I advise playing a little snowflake memory game on the National Geographic site at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/02/snowflakes/match-game. There’s also a jigsaw puzzle: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/02/snowflakes/puzzles.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.