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This article is about ice crystals, which form snow. For other uses, see .

Freshly fallen snowflakes.

A snowflake is a single that has achieved a sufficient size, and may have amalgamated with others, then falls through the as . Each flake nucleates around a dust particle in air masses by attracting cloud water droplets, which and accrete in crystal form. Complex shapes as the flake moves through differing temperature and humidity zones in the atmosphere, such that individual snowflakes differ in detail from one another, but may be categorized in eight broad classifications and at least 80 individual variants. The main constituent shapes for ice crystals, from which combinations may occur, are needle, column, plate, and rime. Snow appears white in color despite being made of clear ice. This is due to of the whole of by the small crystal facets of the snowflakes.



See also:

Naturally formed snowflakes differ from one another through happenstance of formation. The characteristic six branches is related with the .

Snowflakes nucleate around mineral or organic particles in moisture-saturated, subfreezing air masses. They grow by net accretion to the incipient crystals in hexagonal formations. The cohesive forces are primarily electrostatic.


In warmer clouds, an aerosol particle or "ice nucleus" must be present in (or in contact with) the droplet to act as a nucleus. The particles that make ice nuclei are very rare compared to nuclei upon which liquid cloud droplets form; however, it is not understood what makes them efficient. Clays, desert dust, and biological particles may be effective, although to what extent is unclear. Artificial nuclei include particles of and , and these are used to stimulate precipitation in . Experiments show that "homogeneous" nucleation of cloud droplets only occurs at temperatures lower than −35 °C (−31 °F).


Once a droplet has frozen, it grows in the supersaturated environment, which is one where air is saturated with respect to ice when the temperature is below the freezing point. The droplet then grows by of water molecules in the air (vapor) onto the ice crystal surface where they are collected. Because water droplets are so much more numerous than the ice crystals due to their sheer abundance, the crystals are able to grow to hundreds of or millimeters in size at the expense of the water droplets. This process is known as the . The corresponding depletion of water vapor causes the droplets to evaporate, meaning that the ice crystals grow at the droplets' expense. These large crystals are an efficient source of precipitation, since they fall through the atmosphere due to their mass, and may collide and stick together in clusters, or aggregates. These aggregates are usually the type of ice particle that falls to the ground. lists the world's largest (aggregate) snowflakes as those of January 1887 at , ; allegedly one measured 15 inches (38 cm) wide. Although this report by a farmer is doubtful, aggregates of three or four inches width have been observed. Single crystals the size of a (17.91 mm in diameter) have been observed. Snowflakes encapsulated in form balls known as .



Snow crystals in strong direct sunlight act like small prisms

Although ice by itself is clear, snow usually appears white in color due to diffuse reflection of the whole spectrum of light by the scattering of light by the small crystal facets of the snowflakes of which it is comprised.


The shape of the snowflake is determined broadly by the temperature and humidity at which it is formed. Rarely, at a temperature of around −2 °C (28 °F), snowflakes can form in threefold symmetry — triangular snowflakes. The most common snow particles are visibly irregular, although near-perfect snowflakes may be more common in pictures because they are more visually appealing. It is unlikely that any two snowflakes are alike due to the estimated 1019 (10 quintillion) water molecules which make up a typical snowflake, which grow at different rates and in different patterns depending on the changing temperature and humidity within the atmosphere that the snowflake falls through on its way to the ground. Snowflakes that look identical, but may vary at the molecular level, have been grown under controlled conditions.

Although snowflakes are never completely symmetrical, a non-aggregated snowflake often grows so as to exhibit an approximation of . The symmetry gets started due to the of ice. At that stage, the snowflake has the shape of a minute hexagon. The six "arms" of the snowflake, or dendrites, then grow independently from each of the corners of the hexagon, while either side of each arm grows independently. The microenvironment in which the snowflake grows changes dynamically as the snowflake falls through the cloud and tiny changes in temperature and humidity affect the way in which water molecules attach to the snowflake. Since the micro-environment (and its changes) are very nearly identical around the snowflake, each arm tends to grow in nearly the same way. However, being in the same micro-environment does not guarantee that each arm grow the same; indeed, for some crystal forms it does not because the underlying crystal growth mechanism also affects how fast each surface region of a crystal grows. Empirical studies suggest less than 0.1% of snowflakes exhibit the ideal six-fold symmetric shape. Very occasionally twelve branched snowflakes are observed; they maintain the six-fold symmetry.


Snowflakes form in a wide variety of intricate shapes, leading to the notion that "no two are alike". Although nearly-identical snowflakes have been made in laboratory, they are very unlikely to be found in nature. Initial attempts to find identical snowflakes by thousands of them with a from 1885 onward by found the wide variety of snowflakes we know about today.

developed a crystal morphology diagram, relating crystal shape to the temperature and moisture conditions under which they formed, which is summarized in the following table:

Crystal structure morphology as a function of temperature and water saturation Temperature range Saturation range (g/m3) Types of snow crystal

below saturation

Types of snow crystal

above saturation

0 °C (32 °F) to −3.5 °C (26 °F) 0.0 to 0.5 Solid plates Thin plates


−3.5 °C (26 °F) to −10 °C (14 °F) 0.5 to 1.2 Solid prisms

Hollow prisms

Hollow prisms


−10 °C (14 °F) to −22 °C (−8 °F) 1.2 to 1.2 Thin plates

Solid plates

Sectored plates


−22 °C (−8 °F) to −40 °C (−40 °F) 0.0 to 0.4 Thin plates

Solid plates



Wilson Bentley micrograph showing two classes of snowflake, plate and column. Missing is an example of a needle.

The shape of a snowflake is determined primarily by the temperature and humidity at which it is formed. The most common snow particles are visibly irregular. Freezing air down to −3 °C (27 °F) promotes planar crystals (thin and flat). In colder air down to −8 °C (18 °F), the crystals form as needles, hollow columns, prisms or needles. In air as cold as −22 °C (−8 °F), shapes become plate-like again, often with branched or dendritic features. At temperatures below −22 °C (−8 °F), the crystals becomes plate-like or columnar, depending on the degree of saturation. As discovered, shape is also a function of whether the prevalent moisture is above or below saturation. Forms below the saturation line trend more towards solid and compact. Crystals formed in supersaturated air trend more towards lacy, delicate and ornate. Many more complex growth patterns also form such as side-planes, bullet-rosettes and also planar types depending on the conditions and ice nuclei. If a crystal has started forming in a column growth regime, at around −5 °C (23 °F), and then falls into the warmer plate-like regime, then plate or dendritic crystals sprout at the end of the column, producing so called "capped columns".

Magono and Lee devised a classification of freshly formed snow crystals that includes 80 distinct shapes. They are listed in the following main categories (with symbol):

  • Needle crystal (N) – Subdivided into: Simple and combination of needles
  • Columnar crystal (C) – Subdivided into: Simple and combination of columns
  • Plate crystal (P) – Subdivided into: Regular crystal in one plane, plane crystal with extensions, crystal with irregular number of branches, crystal with 12 branches, malformed crystal, radiating assemblage of plane branches
  • Combination of columnar and plate crystals (CP) – Subdivided into: Column with plane crystal at both ends, bullet with plane crystals, plane crystal with spatial extensions at ends
  • Columnar crystal with extended side planes (S) – Subdivided into: Side planes, scalelike side planes, combination of side planes, bullets, and columns
  • Rimed crystal (R) – Subdivided into: Rimed crystal, densely rimed crystal, graupellike crystal, graupel
  • Irregular snow crystal (I) – Subdivided into: Ice particle, rimed particle, broken piece from a crystal, miscellaneous
  • Germ of snow crystal (G) – Subdivided into: Minute column, germ of skeleton form, minute hexagonal plate, minute stellar crystal, minute assemblage of plates, irregular germ

They documented each with micrographs.

The International Classification for Seasonal Snow on the Ground describes snow crystal classification, once it is deposited on the ground, that include grain shape and grain size. The system also characterizes the snowpack, as the individual crystals metamorphize and coalesce.

Use as a symbol[]

Snowflake symbol

The snowflake is often a traditional seasonal image or motif used around the , especially in Europe and North America. As a celebration, Christmas celebrates the of , who according to Christian belief for the of humanity, making them appear "white as snow" before God (cf. ); as such, in the religious Christmas tradition, snowflakes purity. Snowflakes are also traditionally associated with the "" weather that often occurs during Christmastide. During this period, it is quite popular to make paper snowflakes by folding a piece of paper several times, cutting out a pattern with scissors and then unfolding it.

Snowflakes are also often used as symbols representing winter or cold conditions. For example, snow which enhance traction during harsh winter driving conditions are labelled with a snowflake on the mountain symbol. A stylized snowflake has been part of the emblem of the , , , and .

Snowflakes are also seen as a symbol of as no two are perfectly identical.

In heraldry, the is a stylized , often used to represent winter or winter sports.

Three different snowflake symbols are encoded in : "snowflake" at U+2744 (❄); "tight snowflake" at U+2745 (❅); and "heavy snowflake" at U+2746 (❆).


A selection of photographs taken by (1865–1931):

  • Bentley Snowflake1.jpg
  • Bentley Snowflake2.jpg
  • Bentley Snowflake4.jpg
  • Bentley Snowflake5.jpg
  • Bentley Snowflake8.jpg
  • Bentley Snowflake9.jpg
  • Bentley Snowflake11.jpg
  • Snowflake12.png
  • Bentley Snowflake13.jpg
  • Bentley Snowflake14.jpg
  • Bentley Snowflake17.jpg
  • Bentley Snowflake18.jpg

See also[]


  1. Knight, C.; Knight, N. (1973). Snow crystals. Scientific American, vol. 228, no. 1, pp. 100-107.
  2. Hobbs, P.V. 1974. Ice Physics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  3. ^ b Broad, William J. (2007-03-20). . . from the original on 2011-11-04. Retrieved 2009-07-12. 
  4. ^ Lawson, Jennifer E. (2001). . Hands-on Science: Light, Physical Science (matter). Portage & Main Press. p. 39.  . from the original on 2014-01-01. Retrieved 2009-06-28. 
  5. Physics of Ice, V. F. Petrenko, R. W. Whitworth, Oxford University Press, 1999,  
  6. Christner, Brent Q.; Morris, Cindy E.; Foreman, Christine M.; Cai, Rongman & Sands, David C. (2007). "Ubiquity of Biological Ice Nucleators in Snowfall". . 319 (5867): 1214. :. :.  . 
  7. . . 26 January 2012. from the original on 22 December 2015. Retrieved 2016-01-05. 
  8. Basil John Mason (1971). Physics of Clouds. Clarendon.  . 
  9. ^ M. Klesius (2007). "The Mystery of Snowflakes". . 211 (1): 20.  . 
  10. Libbrecht, Kenneth G. (2006-09-11). . . from the original on 2009-07-10. Retrieved 2009-06-28. 
  11. ^ John Roach (2007-02-13). . . from the original on 2010-01-09. Retrieved 2009-07-14. 
  12. Libbrecht, Kenneth (Winter 2004–2005). (PDF). . (PDF) from the original on 2010-09-17. Retrieved 2010-10-19. 
  13. Olsen, Erik (16 February 2018). . . Retrieved 16 February 2018. 
  14. Nelson, Jon (15 March 2011). . The Story of Snow. from the original on 9 December 2017. 
  15. Nelson, Jon (17 March 2005). (PDF). Story of Snow. Archived from (PDF) on 5 January 2015. 
  16. Bohannon, John (10 April 2013). . ScienceNOW. . from the original on 29 October 2016. Retrieved 5 January 2016. 
  17. Smalley, I.J. (1963). "Symmetry of Snow Crystals". . 198 (4885): 1080–1081. :. :. 
  18. (1863). . Boston: American Tract Society. p. 164. Retrieved 2016-11-25. 
  19. Kenneth G. Libbrecht. . 
  20. Jon Nelson (2008-09-26). (PDF). . (PDF) from the original on 2011-11-20. Retrieved 2011-08-30. 
  21. Libbrecht, Kenneth (Winter 2004–2005). (PDF). American Educator. Archived from (PDF) on 2008-11-28. Retrieved 2009-07-14. 
  22. Bishop, Michael P.; Björnsson, Helgi; Haeberli, Wilfried; Oerlemans, Johannes; Shroder, John F.; Tranter, Martyn (2011). Singh, Vijay P.; Singh, Pratap; Haritashya, Umesh K., eds. . Springer Science & Business Media. p. 1253.  . from the original on 2017-11-07. Retrieved 2016-11-25. 
  23. Matthew Bailey; John Hallett (2004). "Growth rates and habits of ice crystals between −20 and −70C". Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences. 61 (5): 514–544. :. :. 
  24. Kenneth G. Libbrecht (2006-10-23). . . from the original on 2009-07-10. Retrieved 2009-06-28. 
  25. Kenneth G. Libbrecht (January–February 2007). "The Formation of Snow Crystals". American Scientist. 95 (1): 52–59. :. 
  26. Magono, Choji; Lee, Chung Woo (1966). . Journal of the Faculty of Science. 7 (Geophysics ed.). Hokkaido: Hokkaido University. 3 (4): 321–335. Retrieved 2016-11-25. 
  27. Fierz, C.; Armstrong, R.L.; Durand, Y.; Etchevers, P.; Greene, E.; et al. (2009), (PDF), IHP-VII Technical Documents in Hydrology, 83, Paris: UNESCO, p. 80, (PDF) from the original on 2016-09-29, retrieved 2016-11-25 
  28. ^ Mosteller, Angie (2008). Christmas. Itasca Books. p. 147.  . 
  29. Wallach, Jennifer Jensen; Swindall, Lindsey R.; Wise, Michael D. (12 February 2016). The Routledge History of American Foodways. Routledge. p. 223.  . 
  30. for detailed instructions see for example 2012-01-08 at the .
  31. 2013-02-08 at the .
  32. Gilles, Tim (2004). . Cengage Learning. p. 271.  . from the original on 2017-12-15. Retrieved 2009-07-15. 
  33. . . from the original on 2016-02-09. Retrieved 2016-01-05. 
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  35. . from the original on 2017-12-15. Retrieved 2017-10-28. 

Further reading[]

External links[]


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