Some proudly define them as one of a kind, others say that they are just too flaky. Both are correct when it comes to snowflakes.

Snowflakes are not frozen rain, but the conglomeration of many single crystals of ice that grow individually when water vapor in the clouds condenses and freezes. One ice crystal measures only .04 to .08 inches, but can have as many as a billion billion (10 to the 19th) water molecules.

On the way down from the sky, single ice crystals bump and clump together to form snowflakes, which fall to the ground, creating a blanket of snow. The details of each snowflake’s voyage are as unique as each snowflake.

We’ve been seeing a lot of the white stuff already this winter. But snow isn’t always white. Gray snowflakes can fall from the sky, caused by pollution produced by the burning of coal and the resultant particulates that get into the clouds.

Pink snow is possible too. In Prince Edward Island, Canada, red clay dust gets into the atmosphere and can cause pale red snow. For certain, though, the worst colored snow is snirt. Snirt is soiled snow produced when windborne snow mixes with dirt. Snirt makes the phrase “pure as the driven snow” meaningless.

Color is not the most detailed way to differentiate snowflakes; that honor goes to shape. Though we know that no two snowflakes are alike, they can be categorized by form. Plates, tubes, needles, prisms, dendrites, columns, stars, crystals and rosettes are some of the shapes that flakes can take. Official classification systems do exist: The most commonly cited were developed by the International Committee on Snow and Ice and physicist Ukichiro Nakaya.

Temperature is one of the factors that affect the details of the hexagonal shape of snowflakes. Colder temperatures produce sharper edges on the six-sided forms, while warmer weather (when the temperature is near freezing) produces larger flakes. Rods or needles occur in the most extreme cold conditions. Every flake, and thus every snowstorm, is unique.

The largest snowflake deserves a mention. This 15-inch-wide, eight-inch-thick flake reportedly fell in Montana and was described as “larger than a milk pan.” So, too, does the place with the most snow. Stampede Pass, Wash., receives the most annual snowfall, with an average of 430 inches per year. And what do folks with lots of snow do with it all? In Maine, they built the world’s tallest snowman, 113 feet high!

Perhaps the greatest surveyor of snow was Wilson Bentley, a farmer who was born in 1885. He was enraptured with snowflakes and studied them throughout his life. He was the first to photograph a snowflake, and subsequently wrote 60 books on the subject.

Bentley described his passion thus: “Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”

This winter take a fleeting moment to fathom the fascination of each flake.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.