Designing Snowflakes

by Brian Fisher Johnson
Thursday, January 5, 2012

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.

© 2008-2021. All rights reserved. Any copying, redistribution or retransmission of any of the contents of this service without the expressed written permission of the American Geosciences Institute is expressly prohibited. Click here for all copyright requests.