The science behind snow: This is how snowflakes form

Why are no two snowflakes alike? The NOAA explains.
Loukia Papadopoulos
No two snowflakes are alike.jpg
No two snowflakes are alike.

NOAA 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has released an explanation just in time for the holidays.

“The ice crystals that make up snowflakes are symmetrical (or patterned) because they reflect the internal order of the crystal’s water molecules as they arrange themselves in predetermined spaces (known as “crystallization”) to form a six-sided snowflake,” stated the NOAA.

"Ultimately, it is the temperature at which a crystal forms — and to a lesser extent the humidity of the air — that determines the basic shape of the ice crystal. Thus, we see long needle-like crystals at 23 degrees F and very flat plate-like crystals at 5 degrees F.” 

Many many shapes and structures

The complex and varied shape of each single arm of the snowflake is determined by the atmospheric conditions experienced by the entire ice crystal as it falls, further explained the NOAA.

An individual crystal might begin to grow in one direction, and then minutes or even seconds later, slight changes in the surrounding temperature or humidity causes the crystal to grow in another way.

One thing remains the same: the six-sided shape. However, the ice crystal (and its six arms) can and does branch off in all kinds of new and interesting directions. 

The NOAA further explained why no two snowflakes are the same.

“Well, that’s because individual snowflakes all follow slightly different paths from the sky to the ground —and thus encounter slightly different atmospheric conditions along the way. Therefore, they all tend to look unique, resembling everything from prisms and needles to the familiar lacy pattern,” said the organization.

Capturing the intricate beauty of snowflakes

Previously we reported on a photographer that managed to capture the mesmerizing beauty of snowflakes and all their intricate details.

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To achieve this, Nathan Myhrvold, a former CTO at Microsoft and the founder of Modernist Cuisine, an innovation food lab, used a special camera that resembled a big box on a carbon fiber frame that took him 18 months to design and build. 

It was at the time "the highest-resolution snowflake camera in the world," as Myhrvold claimed. It made use of a Phase One sensor (100MP) that had been adapted to shoot at microscopic levels. 

Just looking at some of the resulting images goes to show how right the NOAA was about its explanation. We can see how the different arms of each snowflake take their own path according to what conditions they were exposed to.

The end result is a beautiful and unique pattern that cannot be recreated twice. That is why no two snowflakes are alike and never will be.