It’s that time of year when kids are building snowmen, having snowball fights and making snow angels. They might even be cutting out paper snowflakes when they come inside to warm up. Why not take advantage of their current fascination with snow and study snowflake science?
Let’s start with some snowflake fun factoids:
- At least 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1 septillion) ice crystals fall from the sky in the U.S. alone. That is a 1 followed by 24 zeros. (Have your students write that number. 😊)
- In 1921 75.8 inches of snow fell between April 14 at 2:30 p.m. and April 15 at 2:30 p.m. in Silver Lake Colorado. This was the most snow to fall within a 24-hour period in the United States.
- The largest snowflake measured 15 inches. (Have your students measure this out on the floor or a tabletop.)
- On February 2, 2009, it snowed so much in the United Kingdom, that it was enough snow for every person living there to make 251,800 snowballs each! That would make for a lengthy and epic snowball fight.
How Are Snowflakes Formed?
Snowflakes are formed when water vapor freezes to a particle of dust or other matter in the clouds. As this tiny particle of ice moves through the clouds, more water vapor freezes to it. Eventually, this process creates a snowflake that is heavy enough to fall from the clouds to the earth. (Notice that snow is formed from water vapor, not raindrops.)
Why Are Snowflakes Always Six Sided?
The beautiful six-sided structure of snowflakes comes from the hexagonal lattice structure of ice. When water freezes, the molecules connect together and always form hexagons. As more molecules are added, they form branches on each of the six sides.
Snowflake Science Videos
This is an excellent video with animations showing how snowflakes begin as crystals and grow. The photos and imagery are interesting for all ages, the content and vocabulary is best for middle school through adults. Truly fascinating images and information!
Here is a video explaining snowflake formation and featuring images captured by a high-speed camera.
This video provides information and explanation for the younger scientist:
Is Each Snowflake Unique in Size, Shape, and Composition?
It is probably true that each snowflake is unique because at the molecular level, it is difficult for two snowflakes to be identical.
Given that it can take up to 100,000 water vapor droplets to make each snowflake. It is highly improbable that all 100,000 droplets of one snowflake could arrange themselves exactly the same way as another.
The arrangement of these vapor droplets in each snowflake is dependent upon the temperature and moisture levels of the clouds. This diagram from www.snowcrystals.com shows how humidity and temperature relate to snowflake shapes.
Snowflakes can be found in hexagon shaped plates, lacy dendrites, needles and columns. Which one of these have you seen in the winter time?
Snowflake Science Printable Lesson & Other Resources
Want to learn more about snowflakes? Get your FREE printable snowflake science lesson!
How Can You Capture Your Own Snowflakes
If you want to capture snowflakes of your own to observe, you need the following:
- a cold, winter day
- a black piece of foam board or paper
- a magnifying glass
Place the black paper or foam board outside, but out of the snow, for 15 – 20 minutes, or until snowflakes can land on it and not melt immediately. When the paper is cold enough place the paper on a level surface or hold it carefully where snowflakes can fall on it. Observe the collected snowflakes with the magnifying glass quickly before they disappear.
More Snowflake Science Resources