Archive for Thursday, February 11, 2010

About snow crystals

February 11, 2010

When it was snowing last Saturday, a big snowflake landed right on my nose, and I could see it very clearly. I looked around at the flakes and noticed how many of them were latticed together to make great big flakes, some as big as an inch long.

Over the many years that I have seen snow fall, I have never really paid much attention to individual snowflakes. I have heard that no two snowflakes are alike so I decided to do some research and was surprised at what I found. Each flake has at least 35 basic shapes that are formed around a hexagon that are changed by different temperatures, so the final shape changes are endless.

As far back as 1611 scientist Johannen Kepler started researching snow crystals. He pondered the question of why snow crystals always exhibit a sixfold symmetry. Kepler speculated that the hexagonal close-packing of spheres may have something to do with the morphology of snow crystals. He had questions about how snow crystals were formed but it took 300 years for his questions to be answered, requiring the development of X-ray crystallography.

In 1931, Wilson Bentley was an American farmer and snow crystal photomicrographer. During his lifetime he captured some 5,000 snow crystal images.

In 1954 Ukichiro Nakaya was the first person to perform systematic study of snow crystals, which resulted in a giant leap in our understanding of how ice crystals form. He was trained as a nuclear physicist, and published a beautiful book titled, “Snow Crystals, Natural and Artificial.” He created artificial snow crystals.

Snow has its benefits, even though we get tired of shoveling. Each flake is formed around a small particle of soil in the atmosphere so it is a cleansing process. Snow acts as an insulator of plants in subzero temperatures. Skiers can make a snow cave and survive in severe winter conditions. Snowfall accumulation is also important to the western states for providing up to 75 percent of a year-round surface water supply.

New York City averages 94 inches of snow a year. The most snowfall in one day happened in 1913 in Georgetown, Colo., when a record 63 inches fell in a 24-hour span. In 1998, 1,140 inches fell in Mount Baker, Wash. Snow has fallen in all 50 states.

The biggest snowfall in Lansing that I remember was in 1956 when we had 17 inches on the ground that came in a 24-hour period of time. It was the perfect snow for snowman building and snowball fights.

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