The Science of Snowflakes


Grace Emrick, Staff Writer

In many places in the world during the month of December, it is likely that you’ll peer outside the window and see the ground blanketed in the white icy slush known as snow. Although it is very rare for this type of precipitation to occur in Redlands, you may have wondered how snowflakes form and why they are structured the way they are.

The discovery first began in 1885 when Wilson Bently attached a camera to his microscope and took what is known to be the first ever picture of a snowflake. He loved snowflakes so much that he never moved out of his mom’s house so he could photograph and study snowflakes, which he did for about fifty years, practically dedicating the rest of his life to snowflake research. 

Snowflakes are structured of their own unique plates, branches, and tiny needles in which sprout off of other tiny needles. These details are called “Emergent properties.” Emergent properties are properties which a collection or complex system has, but which the individual members do not have. Snowflakes form from tiny specks of dust or pollen and catch water vapor. This forms hexagons called diamond dust. From there, branches spread out and the rest of the snowflake forms randomly. Snowflakes grow out of the point of the diamond dust and not the sides because the points stick out, therefore being more likely to catch water vapor. 

You’ve probably heard that no snowflake can be identical to another. Physics can prove this to be true, however it wasn’t always known. In 1998, a researcher named Nancy Knight claimed to find two identical snowflakes. They did look extremely similar, and the hexagons could’ve been the same size and mass. However, not all hydrogen atoms that help make up H2O in the snowflake are equal. During the Big Bang, for every million hydrogen atoms created, a couple hundred of them were “deuteriums”. Deuteriums, also known as “heavy hydrogens” are atoms holding onto a neutron instead of just a proton and electron. Because of this, among the millions of molecules that make up a snowflake, many of them hold on to a deuterium. Therefore, even identical snowflakes can never be the exact same.