A snowflake is one of God’s most fragile creations. Psalm 147:16 begins: “He sends the snow like white wool” (NLT). And there really is something awesome about the freshly fallen white snow covering everything. It really is like a blanket of white wool spread on the ground.

In fact, since snow is 90-95% trapped air, when it covers the ground it keeps everything underneath warm. This is why so many animals dig tunnels in the snow to hibernate or burrow into the ground to make themselves comfortable under the snow during the winter. This is also the reason why igloos can be so much warmer inside than outside.

The snow is coming – whether you like it or not

When you ask a child what snow is, you’ll probably get answers like cold, white, wet, fun. Or maybe shiny, sparkly, pretty. And it’s. But older people often have a different perspective. As we age, we tend to view snow as a burden or a chore, rather than a pleasure.

The falling snow sometimes reminds me of childhood – my sister and I bundled up like two human marshmallows with rosy noses and cheeks and wet, damp but not cold gloves, building a snowman or making snow sculptures in the garden. I remember crawling inside a “igloo” that I had built (actually it was more of a small cave) and pretending that I was a real Eskimo.

Even children who didn’t like winter were happy when school closed for a snowy day. Especially when they didn’t have their homework ready.

And I remember a friend’s young granddaughter several years ago comparing snowflakes to little white angels, then falling backwards in the snow to make a “large” snow angel.

These days I like to see a cute cardinal or blue jay feeding in the freshly fallen snow under the feeders. And I like calm; calm after it snows. And it’s not imagined. Because it is so porous, snow is a natural sound buffer.

What is snow?

To most people, snow may seem like nothing. But a closer look reveals that snow or, more specifically, snowflakes are truly extraordinary.

By simple definition, snow forms when water vapor (not liquid water) in clouds condenses and freezes into ice crystals (a crystal is a solid substance that has flat surfaces and angles sharp), often around a particle, or nanoparticle, of dirt. Ice crystals can stay in the clouds or, if heavy enough, fall to the ground.

Individual ice crystals fuse with other ice crystals to form snowflakes. Crystals often grow in fractal and jagged patterns. Hypothetically, each snowflake created will have six more or less identically shaped segments. They are a wonderful example of symmetry in nature. In fact, when all is said and done, if you could fold a snowflake in half, both sides would match, for all intents and purposes.

In 1611, the German astronomer, mathematician and physicist Johannes Kepler (Kepler’s Three Laws of Planetary Motion), author “The Six-Horned Snowflake”, in which he wonders: “Why do snowflakes when they fall and before they tangle and form bigger snowflakes, have six corners, and are grouped together like feathers.” The assay formed a basis for the study and understanding of crystal structures. Centuries later, thanks to advances in science, some of his speculations became better understood and would eventually be proven.

In 1885, Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley, a self-taught farmer from Vermont, took a high-resolution photo of a snowflake using a bellows camera with a microscope mounted inside. The technique, called photomicrography, which Bentley pioneered, allowed him to take pictures of individual snowflakes. And, in his lifetime, he photographed over 5,000 snowflakes.

The physics of snowflakes

Apparently snowflakes are minerals. According to Dr. Jeffrey Post, curator of gems and minerals at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History, “Snowflakes are single crystals of ice, and ice is essentially a mineral that melts at a lower temperature than other minerals.” In other words, snow contains all the basic components of a mineral.

All minerals:

— Are of natural origin: snowflakes form naturally when water freezes in cold air.

— Are inorganic: snowflakes are not carbon compounds. They are formed inorganically.

— Have a definable or definite chemical composition: Snowflakes consist of a single material, H2O.

— Have an ordered internal structure: snowflakes have a distinct arrangement of atoms in a lattice.

— Are homogeneous: the snowflakes are made of ice and are identical from one end to the other.

— Are solid: the ice is definitely solid.

Growing snowflakes in the lab

California Institute of Technology physics professor Kenneth Libbrecht has been called a physicist and an artist. He studies the molecular dynamics of crystal growth, in particular the growth of ice crystals from water vapour. And he’s been creating snowflakes under controlled conditions, inside a homemade snowflake creation chamber, for decades. He made thousands. And he wrote several books on the subject; each containing remarkable, jaw-dropping photos of his lab-created snowflakes.

Snowflakes can get quite large

Although supporting evidence is limited, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the largest global snowflake ever reported fell at Fort Keogh, Montana in January 1887 and measured (allegedly) 15 inches (38.1 cm) wide and 8 inches (20.32 cm) thick. The breeder who spotted him described him as “bigger than milk pans.”

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