Key Takeaways: Snowflake Shapes
- Snowflakes have characteristic shapes because they consist of water molecules, which have a bent shape.
- Most snowflakes are flat crystals that have six sides. They resemble lacy hexagons.
- The main factor affecting snowflake shape is temperature. Temperature determines the shape of a crystal as it forms and also changes that shape as it melts.
Hexagonal plates are six-sides flat shapes. The plates may be simple hexagons or they may be patterned. Sometimes you can see a star pattern in the center of a hexagonal plate.
These shapes are more common than the simple hexagons. The term ‘stellar’ is applied to any snowflake shape that radiates outward, like a star. Stellar plates are hexagonal plates that have bumps or simple, unbranched arms.
Stellar dendrites are a common snowflake shape. These are the branching six-sided shapes most people associate with snowflakes.
Fernlike Stellar Dendrites
If the branches extending from a snowflake look feathery or like the fronds of a fern, then the snowflakes are categorized as fernlike stellar dendrites.
Some snowflakes are six-sided columns. The columns may be short and squat or long and thin. Some columns may be capped. Sometimes (rarely) the columns are twisted. Twisted columns are also called Tsuzumi-shaped snow crystals.
Column-shaped snowflakes sometimes taper at one end, forming a bullet shape. When the bullet-shaped crystals are joined together they can form icy rosettes.
Most snowflakes are imperfect. They may have grown unevenly, broken, melted and refrozen, or had contact with other crystals.
Sometimes snow crystals come in contact with water vapor from clouds or warmer air. When the water freezes onto the original crystal it forms a coating that is known as rime. Sometimes rime appears as dots or spots on a snowflake. Sometimes rime completely covers the crystal. A crystal coated with rime is called graupel.
How to See the Shape of Snowflakes
It’s difficult to observe the shapes of snowflakes because they are tiny and melt so quickly. However, with a little preparation, it’s possible to observe the shapes and even photograph them.
- Choose a dark background for viewing snowflakes. The snow crystals are transparent or white, so their shape shows up best against a dark color. A piece of dark-colored fabric is a good choice because it’s portable and rough enough to catch flakes easily.
- Let the background reach a freezing temperature. Remember, dark colors readily absorb heat. Keep the background out of direct sunlight.
- Allow snowflakes to drop onto the cold, dark surface. Collect snowflakes falling from the sky. Yes, you can scoop up snow from the ground, but these flakes are most likely broken and may have melted and re-frozen.
- Magnify the snowflakes so they are easier to see. Use a magnifying glass, reading glasses, or the zoom feature of your phone’s photo app.
- Capture pictures of the snowflakes. Be careful using digital zoom on your phone or some cameras because it often makes the image look grainy. If you have access to one, a camera with a macro lens is your best best.