Designing Snowflakes

One of Kenneth Libbrecht's snowflake photographs.


Kenneth Libbrecht

It's easy to forget that powerful snowstorms are made of tiny, delicate ice crystals we call snowflakes. Some snowflakes take a familiar six-sided form. Others are more fantastic. Either way, snowflakes can astound with their intricate beauty.

There are more than 35 types of snowflakes, from "simple stars" to "hexagonal plates" to "bullet rosettes." Physicist Kenneth Libbrecht of Caltech has made a career out of photographing this variety of snowflakes, including his personal favorite, "capped columns."

Libbrecht captures some of his snowflakes during snowfalls, using a microscope to help take the pictures. But he also grows his own snowflakes in the lab. By changing the temperature and humidity conditions, Libbrecht can design different shapes. Why temperature matters to snowflake shape is not clear. But it might explain why minerals like calcite can form so many different crystal shapes.

Many snowflakes are not as beautifully formed as those designed by Libbrecht. But with the right conditions and enough patience, Libbrecht says, anyone can become a snowflake watcher.

Read more about designing snowflakes in the February EARTH. For more information about snowflakes and more of Kenneth LIbbrecht's snowflake photography, visit his website.

Brian Fisher Johnson
Friday, March 5, 2010 - 11:26

Did you know ...

The digital edition of EARTH Magazine is a free subscription for members of AGI's Member Societies.  Find out more!

EARTH only uses professional science journalists and scientists to author our content?  In this era of fake news and click-bait, EARTH offers factual and researched journalism. But EARTH is a non-profit magazine, and at least 10 times more people read EARTH than pay for it. As advertising revenues across the media decline, we need your help to ensure that we can continue bringing you the reliable and well-written coverage of earth science you know and love. Our goal is not only to inform our readers, but to inform decision makers across the economic and political spectrum about the science of our planet. So, we need your help. By becoming a subscriber or making a tax-deductible contribution to support EARTH, you can fund our writers and help make sure the world knows about our planet.

Make a contribution