The Beauty and Science of Snowflakes


There’s nothing lovelier than the first snowfall of winter. Fluffy white flakes slowly drift down to cover your hair and clothes in their crystalline patterns. Just like all of nature’s most beautiful things, we can describe the beauty of snow with science! With the help of a turn of the century scientist and knowledge of crystal formation, we can crack of the code on these snow crystals. Including the big questions: Is it true that no two snowflakes are alike?  

A girl catching snowflakes

What’s the science behind these beautiful snowflakes? Image: Creatas/Creatas/Thinkstock

In many ways, snow was just a beautiful enigma until Wilson Bentley set out to uncover its mystery. Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley was born in Jericho, Vermont, in 1865. Bentley, like many others living in rural Vermont, worked the family farm. However, his true passions lay elsewhere. Vermont, and Jericho especially, is a very wintery place with no shortage of snowfall. The delicate intricacies of this snow caught Bentley’s attention, and he engineered a method of photography called photomicrography in order to get a closer look. Bentley’s method used a microscope and camera system to take high-quality photos of the snowflakes extremely up close. The work was delicate (and cold), but Bentley managed to photograph over 5,000 snowflakes this way before his death in 1931. Before Bentley’s death he donated a portion of his collection to the Smithsonian Institution, thanking the institution for protecting them against “all possibility of loss and destruction, through fire or accident.” 

In Bentley’s photographs you can see the white snow crystals displayed starkly against a black background. This kind of display makes it very easy to see the unique crystalline forms of each snowflake. You’ve probably heard it said that every snowflake is unique. Is that true? 

Many unique snowflakes Image: Mmarcius/iStock/Thinkstock

To uncover this mystery, we should first talk a little about how snowflakes form. Snowflakes form when water vapor in clouds condenses immediately to ice (a process called deposition, meaning a liquid phase change is skipped) around a small particle, like dust. Because of the molecular structure of water, these new snowflakes begin to form a crystal pattern. The “classic” snowflake is a six-sided crystal, but with changes in humidity and temperature these shapes can differ.  Sometimes the flakes can form in columns, thin needles, or a flat shape called plates. While scientists have learned a lot about snowflakes, even they don’t know exactly why some of these shapes occur when they do.

While these flakes might all be in some kind of crystal form, this doesn’t mean that they are all the same. The uniqueness of snowflakes comes in part from environmental factors of their formations (e.g., collisions, etc.) and also the high number of possible formations crystals can make. That is to say, there are a lot unique combinations you can make with crystal structures because of their many components. These factors combined mean that, for all intents and purposes, it’s true that no two snowflakes are alike! 




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About the Author

Sarah Wells
Digital Media Intern

Sarah Wells is a rising senior at Clark University and hails from Montpelier, Vermont. She is majoring in English with a double minor in physics and computer science.