Published On: Sat, Dec 26th, 2020

What Is a Snowflake? the science behind snow

So what is a snowflake made out of? And what constitutes the difference between actual snow, flurries, and hail? Or freezing rain for that matter. Science offers us the answer.

Snowflakes first form up in the clouds when temperatures are below the freezing line. Of course, it is much colder than high up in the atmosphere. So most of the time new snow will melt and turn into rain before it hits the ground. We need a combination of factors including below freezing conditions on the ground where the snow falls.

Then it must remain below either zero Celsius or 32 degrees Fahrenheit for the snow to collect. Otherwise, it will just melt immediately.

You know how all those drawings of snowflakes and images of them in cartoons look the same. This is because of the snow forms with six crystals around the original particle.

But what determines that snow will form instead of simply rain? Well snow comes when the water molecules bind to particles of dust and dirt that get up into the sky. This way they hold their form until they hit the ground. And the type and size of the dirt particles determine which type of snowflake will form.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explain that as the initial ice crystal falls from the sky, water vapor freezes onto it which builds new crystals. These comprise the six arms of the snowflake. The temperature and humidity in the area at the time of a snowflake’s formation determine its final design.

Then there is the question of why some kinds of snow can be formed into snowballs and snowmen while others fall apart or feel more like little ice beads in your hand? This is because not everything small and frozen and white which falls from the sky is really snow.

Sometimes people confuse something called graupel with snow. Graupel may look like snow, but it is something different. It forms when extremely cold water droplets form around a snowflake. So what began as snow is changed into something different. And graupels do not make for good skiing surfaces or much fun for kids to play in.

All kids love snow. They love to play in it. And they especially love it when the schools need to be closed because the roads are covered in it. But adults tend not to like it so much. It makes driving dangerous, if it builds up on your roof its weight can cause damage, and your home heating bill goes up whenever it’s cold enough to sustain snow on the ground.

But people who live in areas that rarely, if ever, see snow, love it at any age. Take Israel for example. There the people always get excited when it snows in the wintertime.

Then there are all of the winter sports aficionados and places that depend on the snow to attract wintertime tourism. So if you live in one of these places let’s hope that you get plenty of snow this year. And if you love to ski or just play in the snow at a winter resort, or snuggle up at the fireplace surrounded by snow outside, let’s hope that the Coronavirus vaccines get around before it’s too late to enjoy the winter this year.

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