The Anatomy of a Snowflake

Learn the anatomy of a snowflake and the mysteries behind how they form!

Winter is approaching fast and the snow will be here before you know it. Speaking of snow, have you ever wondered how snowflakes are formed? 

Every snowflake is unique

You've probably heard the saying "No two snowflakes are alike" and when you consider the billions of individual snowflakes that fall to earth each year, that's pretty incredible. If you live in a place where it snows, you'll often notice that depending on the weather conditions (how cold it is, how much moisture is in the system and other conditions) some snow looks and feels different than others. The stuff that falls in relatively mild weather is often heavier than the snow that falls when it's -25. This is important from a snow shovelling perspective if not anything else.

Read on and learn the science of nature behind snowflakes and, if you live in Northern Ontario, get ready for billions of them to fall as soon as November arrives. 

Dogs love the snow

How Do Snowflakes Form?

The Nucleus: Every snowflake needs a nucleus - something that water molecules can latch onto. This is most often a speck of dust or pollen in the atmosphere. The life of a snowflake begins through the process of nucleation, which is when the first water molecule finds the dust speck, latches on and as it moves through the cloud, attracts other water molecules which combine together to eventually form a crystal.

No Two Are Alike: Amazing as that sounds, given the sheer number of individual snowflakes that fall during a snowstorm, it is indeed, true. University of Buffalo Chemistry Professor Jason Benedict explains why:

Snowflakes that are formed in late fall will be different than the ones formed in the colder months like January. nature trail in the winter - Northwestern Ontario, Canada
Early snowfalls like this are often wet and heavy.

Complex Snowflakes: How much water there is inside the cloud has everything to do with how complex the structure of a snowflake is. Generally, when there's a lot of water vapor, the snowflake forms much quicker and when that happens, the complexity of the pattern is greater. Other factors such as temperature and air currents also impact an individual snowflake's structure. As Professor Benedict notes:

Snowflakes' structure is determined by the crystal structures of ice. This means all of them are hexagonal in shape and have six arms and branches. The general rule is that slower-growing crystals have smoother edges while the ones which grow fast are typically more complex The eight-sided snowflakes that you see replicated on things like Christmas wrapping paper are not possible in nature.  The more complex flakes are known as stellar dendrites and they are large enough that you can see their intricate patterns with a magnifying glass. 

Here is an excellent guide to identifying snowflakes.

Mount Evergreen ski hill in Kenora Snowy pines in Northwestern Ontario
There's going to be a lot of snow for at least 5 months in Northwestern Ontario

Variations in Snowflakes

Winter landscape in Ontario

Snowflakes come in a myriad of shapes and sizes. They can be broadly categorized into:

  1. Needles: These are thin and long, usually forming at temperatures between -5°C and -10°C.
  2. Columns: Cylindrical snowflakes that form in a similar temperature range as needles.
  3. Plates: Flat and thin, these form at both colder (-10°C to -20°C) and warmer (-3°C to 0°C) temperatures.
  4. Dendrites: The classic snowflake shape, forming under temperatures between -12°C and -16°C, especially when there's high humidity.
  5. Capped Columns: These are columns with plate-like extensions on each end.
  6. Diamond Dust: Tiny ice crystals that form on clear, cold days and appear to glitter in the air.
  7. Rimed Snowflakes: These are snowflakes that collide with supercooled water droplets, which then freeze onto the snowflake, giving it a granular appearance.
  8. Graupel: This occurs when a snowflake becomes heavily rimed, and looks like a tiny ball of rime.
Just wondering about the snowflake shapes on this bull moose's rack - we'll never know for sure! Whitetail deer rut in Ontario's Sunset Country
Snowflakes fall everywhere, including on bull moose and whitetail deer.

The snow is inevitable so make the best of it

When you live in Northwestern Ontario, Halloween or shortly thereafter is usually when the snow arrives. It doesn't melt until April or May so with that much snow on the ground for so long, it makes a lot of sense to embrace winter. Yes, it's cold here in winter but the saying "all you have to do is dress for it" is largely true. There are so many things you can do in winter and once you get outside and try, you'll never hibernate again!

Here's a suggested list of things you can do in the winter in Sunset Country:

Skiing: Whether it is cross-country or downhill, skiers have a long winter to enjoy the snow.

Snowmobiling: Northwestern Ontario has the least congested network of snowmobile trails in Ontario.

Snowmobiling in Ontario image by Mike Starratt

Winter Hiking: Winter is one of the best times to go hiking - no bugs and incredible scenery.

Ice Fishing: Most Lakes are frozen by mid-December, there are endless places you can go. Catch walleye, crappie, pike, lake trout, and perch.

Big northern pike caught ice fishing

It's all in how you look at it...

Winter is the season where a stoic outlook is going to serve you well. If you pause to think about it, there's absolutely nothing you can do about the cold or all the snow, and it's going to last for quite a while in the north. Instead, you'll be better off if you look at winter differently, even positively. Get outside and try something you've never tried before. It will make ALL the difference!

Rime ice

As you move towards embracing winter, stop for a moment and think about that snowflake its intricate patterns and how, despite there being billions of them around, no two are alike. It's a wonder of nature so get outside and have fun in our winter wonderland in Sunset Country.

Here's a worthwhile video to watch: The Building Blocks of Nature

About Gerry Cariou

Gerry is Executive Director of Ontario's Sunset Country Travel Association and is an avid fisherman and nature photographer. Gerry has been writing about Sunset Country's varied travel experiences for over 20 years and lives these experiences year-round in Kenora, Ontario.

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