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Snowflake 101

The Martha Stewart Show, February 2007

The largest snowflake that Dr. Kenneth Libbrecht photographed, measuring 10.2 millimeters in diameter (about the size of a dime), was a dendrite flake in northern Ontario, Canada. Ken shared photographs and facts of some different types of snowflakes:

Plates
The base for all snowflake formation is a six-sided plate and is microscopic in size. The formation of the frozen molecules of water naturally creates a hexagon. As more molecules attach, they expand outward, continuing the hexagonal pattern. Other, more complex plate formations are created as the simple plate picks up more molecules of water as it falls through the air. These are generally what gives snow its sparkle as the sun reflects off of their flat surfaces. Generally small, a good-sized example may be 2 millimeters in diameter.

Dendrites
The word "dendrite" means "treelike," which is appropriate for these more elaborate crystals. These are plates with narrow branches extending from the middle, and they are generally larger and can be seen with the naked eye. Frequently thin and lacy in appearance, dendrites have a considerable amount of detail that can be seen with a simple magnifying glass.

Rimed
When a snowflake falls and collides with cloud droplets on its way down, the droplets often freeze onto the surface of the flake. This is called "rimed" (sounds like "rhymed") and creates a funny, bumpy texture to the flake.

Needles
These are essentially long, hollow hexagonal prisms that look like short bits of white hair on your sleeve.

Preserving Snowflakes
1. Collect your snowflake by putting out a dark board or piece of paper and letting the snow fall onto the board.

2. Then, using a small paintbrush, place the snowflake onto a plastic or glass microscope slide.

3. Place a drop of chilled liquid fast-drying glue onto the snowflake. (Be sure to chill the glue in the freezer beforehand, otherwise your flake will melt.)

4. Place a second glass slide on the top of your glue/snowflake. Then, put your slide into the freezer for two weeks, so that the glue dries completely.

5. Once your glue has dried completely, take your snowflake out of the freezer and you'll have a perfectly preserved snowflake that you can look at any time.

Resources
Special thanks to Voyageur Press for providing copies of "Ken Libbrecht's Field Guide to Snowflakes" (October 2006) and the Snowflakes 2007 calendar to our audience.