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Falling Snowflakes

Written by: Kim Sherwin, Metroparks Interpreter

As I watch the recent falling snowflakes, I am brought back to childhood. The large fluffy snowflakes sashaying through the sky as I gazed up, sticking my tongue out and feeling the cold snowflakes dissolve on my warm tongue. The blanket of white snow dampened the sound of the neighborhood. Even now, as an adult, I enjoy holding out my glove to catch a falling snowflake.

Little did I know, the snowflake that melted on my tongue had a long journey to get there. It began in a cloud, thousands of feet above the ground. Cold water vapor stuck to a miniscule pollen grain or dust particle and began growing a crystal. The growth of a snowflake is influenced by the shape of water. Water is made up of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms. To visualize the growth of a snowflake, imagine for a moment that you are a water molecule. Your body is an oxygen atom and each hand hold a hydrogen atom. Hold your arms out in a wide V-shape. Your body, or oxygen, has a negative charge, while your hands, or hydrogen have a positive charge. Opposites attract, and you are not the only water in the cloud. The negative bodies of other oxygen atoms are drawn to each of your positive hands, or hydrogen. A shape begins to emerge with 6 sides. You can try it with family members! Check out this video to get a closer look at this attraction and the growth of a snowflake.

Each snowflake is blown around on its own unique path. As it is blown around, more water vapor condenses on it. Very slight changes in temperature and humidity along its path affects how that snowflake grows and eventually looks. Snowflake shapes vary from simple plates and needles to more intricate, tree-like forms called stellar dendrites. Click here to see the different shapes of snowflakes and how they are classified.

When the snowflakes get heavy enough, they begin their great fall. From thousands of feet up, it could take them more than 45 minutes to reach the ground, or your glove.

So, the next time you see those falling snowflakes, head outside to observe these miniature art forms for yourself. Explore their shapes or simply catch a falling snowflake on your tongue.

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