April 17, 2014

Scrolling Headlines:

John Ashcroft faces criticism during speech -

Thursday, April 17, 2014

UMass football continues move in new direction in annual Spring Game -

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Student rally in support of Gordon, LGBTQ community -

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Thousands gather in Amherst Commons for 23rd Annual Extravaganja -

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sexual violence is not ‘normal’ -

Thursday, April 17, 2014

One year after Boston Marathon bombings, UMass doctor Pierre Rouzier continues passion to help -

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Photo Slideshow: UMass United Rally -

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Get Yourself Tested at UMass -

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Library labyrinth targets stress -

Thursday, April 17, 2014

There is nothing to debate about global warming -

Thursday, April 17, 2014

UMass hits the road to take on LaSalle -

Thursday, April 17, 2014

No. 11 UMass women’s lacrosse looks to extend winning streak against Richmond -

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive latest McCormack Executive-in-Residence -

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Got a little Irish in you? -

Thursday, April 17, 2014

UMass doctoral student awarded Soros Fellowship -

Thursday, April 17, 2014

UMass Dressage Team discusses the lesser-known sport -

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Canelas: Things worth watching in Spring Game 2014 -

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

‘The Walking Dead’ finale resurrects a dull season -

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Five places to study at UMass -

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

UMass tennis team battles injuries as season comes to an end -

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The science of snowflakes

Courtesy of University of California Davis

“No two snowflakes are alike.” 

That’s an old adage, quite common in weather lore when the unique nature of a snowflake is described, and I’m sure you’ve heard it at least once in your life. However, this rule of thumb is only right to a point: snowflakes can indeed look exactly alike, only differing in the abundance of certain isotopes or the number of water molecules, thus making them technically not identical. When I read this, my childhood notions regarding the magic that was snow melted like Frosty during spring thaw. Yet, despite this elimination of wonder, the science behind the fascinating patterns that make up the structures of snowflakes infused a strange beauty back into them.

One of the biggest proponents to the formation of a snowflake is clouds. There are high, middle, and low clouds, and each shapes its water vapor differently. High clouds normally produce “six-sided hexagonal crystals,” according to Anne Marie Helmenstine, PhD.  In the middle clouds, flatter six-sided crystals and needles are made. Last are the lower clouds where random assortments of six-sided shapes are generated. Temperature affects these shapes by making them more or less detailed to the human eye. Naturally, it’s the higher temperatures that make the snowflakes harder to form, thus the shapes are smoother without as much structural design. In general, the temperatures also yield specific patterns of snowflakes. The warmer ends of freezing (25-32 degrees Fahrenheit) produce the flimsy hexagonal structures. When the temperatures cool down, the shapes progress from the weak hexagons to needles, then hollow columns, sector plates, and dendrites. The latter shape is the most detailed to observe, but we have to wait for temperatures as low as ten degrees Fahrenheit to begin seeing them.

When observing a snowflake, the aesthetic qualities of their structure strike the human eye quite dramatically. One of the reasons is because a snowflake, for the most part, is symmetrical. In general, this is a result of the water molecules arranging themselves in an order that suits them best when they are in a solid state as opposed to a liquid one. This arrangement is based off the hydrogen bonds between these molecules. In the process of making these bonds, the water molecules try to get rid of as many “repulsive forces” as possible, and make as many “attractive forces” in return, according to About.com. The delicate balance they create results in the shapes that were being formed in the water vapor.

Surprisingly enough, snowflakes are not just water vapor.  They contain dirt particles too. As they form, dirt and dust particles make their way into the structure and become an integral part of the weight of the snowflake as well as provide it with durability, states Dr. Helmenstine. So, the next time you open your mouth to catch a snowflake on your tongue, think about that!

Eliza Mitchell can be reached for comment at elizam@student.umass.edu

Comments
One Response to “The science of snowflakes”
  1. ceilea says:

    wow i love snow it is fun

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