Environment

Snowflakes Like You've Never Seen Them Before

You may think you know what a snowflake looks like, but you haven't seen it at 1,800 times magnification.

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Photo Credits: Electron and Confocal Microscopy Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, USDA

People who live in colder regions of the world have a love-hate relationship with snow. Sure, the first snowfall of the season can be picturesque, but by the time February rolls in, snow is nothing more than heavy, white burden that we shovel simply to escape our driveways.

Now that the depths of winter have arrived, we're hoping these up-close images of snow crystals will rekindle your affection for winter's gift — which keeps giving, and giving.

The following snow crystals were photographed using a low-temperature scanning electron microscope (LT-SEM), which is located in the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland.

Photo Credits: Electron and Confocal Microscopy Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, USDA

This is a combination of two crystal forms, and they both look like something you'd find in a percussionist's gig bag.

In fact, the crystal on the left is classified as a Japanese Tsuzumi — named after the drum of the same name. The hourglass crystal shape is quite rare. The crystal on the right is simply known as a column with plates, but we think it looks more like a snare drum to be honest...

Photo Credits: Electron and Confocal Microscopy Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, USDA

Contrary to popular illustrations of snowflakes on holiday cards, this is your common snow crystal. It's got six sides, and, yeah, that's about it.

The smaller inset photo was captured with a traditional light microscope. You can see the dramatic difference in detail and clarity.

Photo Credits: Electron and Confocal Microscopy Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, USDA

From ornaments to kindergarten projects, when people think of snow this is the snow crystal that comes to mind. The distinct hexagonal shape with dendritic extensions has become an unofficial logo of winter.

At the research facility snow crystals like this one are captured by placing samples on copper metal plates containing a precooled methyl cellulose solution. Within seconds, the plates are plunged into a reservoir of liquid nitrogen that rapidly cools them to -384.8 degrees Fahrenheit.

Photo Credits: Electron and Confocal Microscopy Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, USDA

This is a side-view of a bundle of crystals that linked up and fell to Earth. The pillar is an example of irregular crystals and broken crystal fragments joining together.

The inset photo shows a traditional light microscope image of the same crystal. 

Photo Credits: Electron and Confocal Microscopy Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, USDA

This is a basic hexogonal snow crystal with rime coating its edges.

Rime is white ice that forms when water droplets in fog freeze to the surfaces of objects. Rime gives this crystal its fuzzy appearance.

When this process continues so that the shape of the original snow crystal is no longer identifiable, the resulting precipitation is referred to as graupel, or snow pellets.

Photo Credits: Electron and Confocal Microscopy Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, USDA

This "B"-shaped crystal's appearance is rather fitting, as it is found near the "bottom" of a snowpack. 

The layering and hollow interior characterizes what is called a "depth hoar crystal." Depth hoar crystals are formed at the base of a snowpack when water vapor sublimates onto existing snow crystals.

This crystals bond poorly with each other, however, which increases the risk for avalanches.

Photo Credits: Electron and Confocal Microscopy Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, USDA

These two photographs zoom in on a single branch of a stellar snow crystal. Snowflakes' symmetry is evident in even the most minute, microscopic details.

The top image is magnified 900 times, while the bottom image is magnified 1,800 times.

Photo Credits: Electron and Confocal Microscopy Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, USDA

At 3,000 and 7,000 times magnification, symmetry is still very noticeable. But more and more aberrations are beginning to become apparent in the etched surface structure.

Read more: 20 Things You Didn't Know About Snow

Photo Credits: Electron and Confocal Microscopy Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, USDA

This snowflake was sampled shortly after it landed on snowpack. You can see that its edges are a bit damaged, but nowhere near the rounding that occurs after several days.

Photo Credits: Electron and Confocal Microscopy Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, USDA

This is what a snowflake looks when it's lost its edge. As you can see, the edges are far from the sharp extensions you'd see on the "famous" snowflake. The blob-like shape is a result of spending several days in snowpack.

Snow samples are very fragile and therefore looking at them with traditional light microscopes can change structures and even melt them.

Using LT-SEM, samples are frozen to temperatures below -170 degrees Centigrade where they can be placed in a vacuum and observed for many hours with no structural changes.

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