The Snowflake: Winter’s Frozen Artistry by Kenneth Libbrecht and Rachel Wing gives us all a close look at snowflakes, no matter where you spend your winters. And yes, there’s that cliché that snowflakes are unique and special and blah blah blah, but seriously, you probably had no idea snowflakes came in this many shapes and sizes. Thankfully the authors are well-placed to be your guides to the tiny world of snowflakes. Libbrecht is a physics professor at Caltech, where he studies ice crystal growth. Wing is a park ranger in Monrovia, California, and works with Libbrecht as a snowflake chaser.
When hunting for the perfect snowflake, the first thing to know is how they’re made. And in the book, Libbrecht and Wing include a handy guide. The below morphology diagram plots the main geometries based on temperature and humidity.
And finally, it’s time for the snowflakes themselves. We’ve included a few of our favorites in the gallery below. You can read more in the book, which was published this fall.
Think of a snowflake. It’s probably made of six intricately etched branches. But this too is actually a snowflake. It’s called a capped column snowflake and it’s more common than you might realize. These form at temperatures barely below freezing.
First Photographed Flakes
These might not look like much, but they were photographed between 1885 and 1931. Wilson Bentley was a farmer in Jericho, Vermont, and was the first to photograph snowflakes, which made people interested in the tiny pieces of art. He then spent 46 years photographing them, capturing more than 5,000 crystals.
Artificial snow might look pretty similar when it’s falling, but up close, it’s definitely not the same. Fake snow is more like frozen droplets than the fanciful flakes you see in nature.
Computers are a little better at making snowflakes. Part art, part science, this one was generated using algorithms that mathematicians Janko Gravner and David Griffeath wrote. The algorithms mimic how crystals grow naturally. Antoine Clappier turned the calculation into an image.
Another way to create artificial snowflakes is in a lab. This one was grown in lab conditions that wouldn’t occur in nature, so it’s unlikely you’d ever find one of these falling from the sky.
This flake might look flawed, but that’s just because it has a little something extra. The little bumps are known as rimes; they form when cloud droplets freeze to the snowflake’s surface.
A Branched Triangular Crystal
Triangular crystals are similar to the hexagonal plate we saw previously. However, in this case, three sides grew faster than the others. “How these crystals form is a bit of a mystery, but it appears that aerodynamic effects play a role in promoting the triangular shape,” the authors write.
This is another columnar snowflake, known as a bullet rosette. It happens when many columns grow from and cluster around one common center.
Simple Sectored Plate
Yep, this is a snowflake too. The hexagon is divided into six sections by a star-like formation of ridges.
These are also not what you’d think of as snowflakes, but they’re perhaps the coldest and most wintry snowflakes around, as they were collected at the south pole.