Joanne Oka

A snowflake is either a single ice crystal or an aggregation of ice crystals which falls through the Earth's atmosphere. They begin as snow crystals which develop when microscopic supercooled cloud droplets freeze. Snowflakes come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Complex shapes emerge as the flake moves through differing temperature and humidity regimes, such that individual snowflakes are nearly unique in structure. Snowflakes encapsulated in rime form balls known as graupel (shown in the last picture in the gallery). Snowflakes appear white in color despite being made of clear ice. This is due to diffuse reflection of the whole spectrum of light by the small crystal facets.

The Life of a Snowflake

The story of a snowflake begins with water vapor in the air. Evaporation from oceans, lakes, and rivers puts water vapor into the air, as does transpiration from plants. Even you, every time you exhale, put water vapor into the air. When you take a parcel of air and cool it down, at some point the water vapor it holds will begin to condense out. When this happens near the ground, the water may condense as dew on the grass. High above the ground, water vapor condenses onto dust particles in the air. It condenses into countless minute droplets, where each droplet contains at least one dust particle. A cloud is nothing more than a huge collection of these water droplets suspended in the air.

In the winter, snow-forming clouds are still mostly made of liquid water droplets, even when the temperature is below freezing. The water is said to be supercooled, meaning simply that it is cooled below the freezing point. As the clouds gets colder, however, the droplets do start to freeze. This begins happening around -10 C (14 F), but it's a gradual process and the droplets don't all freeze at once. For more information see How does snow form inside of clouds?

If a particular droplet freezes, it becomes a small particle of ice surrounded by the remaining liquid water droplets in the cloud. The ice grows as water vapor condenses onto its surface, forming a snowflake in the process. As the ice grows larger, the remaining water droplets slowly evaporate and put more water vapor into the air. Note what happens to the water -- it evaporates from the water droplets and goes into the air, and it comes out of the air as it condenses on the growing snow crystals. As the snow falls there is a net flow of water from the liquid state (cloud droplets) to the solid state (snowflakes).

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