The Inuit language has more than 50 words for snow, from ganik (means: snow that is still falling) to pukaq (means: crusty snow) and masak (means: mushy snow).
When the temperature at cloud level is at freezing or below, and the moisture-filled clouds can hold back no longer, be on the lookout for snow.
If the air close to the ground is warm enough, the precipitation that started out as snow may turn to rain by the time you see it falling. (snow, however, is not frozen rain, which is properly known as sleet.) The same principle determines whether the snow will be “wet” (good for making snowballs and snowpeople) or “dry” (light and flaky). “Wet” snow forms when slightly warmer temperatures cause the falling flakes to bunch together in clumps; “dry” snow forms when the air temperature is very low (cold), and the resulting flakes are smaller and harder.
All snowflakes are six-sided crystals of ice, forming in one of seven basic shapes. It is said that no two snowflakes are alike. Could that be? Well, considering the average snowflake is made up of 10 to the 18th molecules of water (that’s 10 x 10 x 10, 18 times!), the number of different combinations those molecules can make is mind-staggering.
In 1880, Wilson Bentley of Vermont began a study of snowflakes that occupied him for nearly fifty years. He photographed thousands of snowflakes, giving him the nickname — you guessed it – – Snowflake Bentley. Snowflakes can be described by their geometric shapes, or variations of them, such as prismatic column, hexagonal plate, cup, hexagonal column, needle, flat plate, and dendrite.
Think of all the shapes that occur in an ordinary snowfall, the consider the fact that the greatest single day snowfall was recorded in Silver Lake, Colorado in April, 1921. An astounding 75.8 inches fell during those twenty-four hours!
Catch Some Snowflakes
Because snowflakes melt so quickly when they land on a warm surface, catching them requires some planning. Chill a dark sheet of construction paper outdoors or in the freezer. Examine single flakes with a magnifying glass as they land on the paper (before they melt!).
Permanent impressions of snowflakes can be made by catching falling flakes on a chilled pan of glass which has been sprayed with chilled hair spray or artist’s fixative. (Both the glass and the spray can be stored in the freezer to await use.) Keeping the prepared glass as cold as possible, take it outdoors and allow some flakes to settle on it. When you have collected enough, take the glass indoors and let it dry at room temperature for about 15 minutes. You’ll have a permanent record of some of nature’s most amazing designs!
[Image: Courtesy of Flickr user carolyn_in_oregon]