The word "crystal" comes from Greek word  krystallos meaning ice, crystal. At one time people believed that all crystals were made up of water that was frozen so hard it would never melt.

Don't expect to easily find a perfect six-sided snowflake. They occur less than 25% of the time. Why? Because a snowflake has a bumpy and difficult journey on it's way to earth. Each flake is buffeted by wind, water and other snowflakes.


snow: the solid form of water that crystallizes in the atmosphere and, falling to the Earth, covers, permanently or temporarily, about 23 percent of the Earth's surface.


Snow Crystals by W. A. Bentley, W. J. Humphreys (Contributor) from Amazon


Snow Science

Snow Crystals

If you are lucky you might be able to see some rare snowflakes, like these on Sarah's scarf,  without needing anything special. These near perfect flakes were formed on a cold, (7°  F), day with little wind.
When cloud temperature is at freezing or below and the clouds are moisture filled, snow crystals form. The ice crystals form on dust particles as the water vapor condenses and partially melted crystals cling together to form snowflakes. It is said that no two snowflakes are the same, but they can be classified into types of crystals. All snow crystals have six sides. The six-sided shape of the ice crystal is because of the shape and bonding of the water molecules. Basically there are 6 different types of snow crystals: needles, columns, plates, columns capped with plates, dendrites and stars. The type of crystals depends on the amount of humidity and temperature present when they are forming. That's why when it's very cold and snowing, the flakes are small, and when it's closer to 32 F. the flakes are larger.

Catch Some Snowflakes

What you will need:
  • black velvet or black construction paper
  • Magnifying Glass
  • Snow
Since snowflakes melt so quickly you need to freeze your cloth or paper. Have it ready frozen and ready to go for the next snowfall, and go outside and let some snowflakes land on the dark surface. Quickly, before they melt, examine the flakes with a magnifying glass. Many snowflakes are "broken" and so you don't see the whole six-sided crystal, but with persistence you'll see some beautiful examples.

Keep Some Snowflakes

What you will need:
  • Piece of glass
  • Hairspray (aerosol, NOT pump)
  • Snow
You can have a permanent record of your caught snowflakes if you freeze a piece of glass and the hairspray before the next snowfall. (Both may be stored in the freezer until you need them.) When you're ready to collect some snowflakes, spray your chilled glass with the chilled hairspray and go outside and let some snowflakes settle on the glass. When you have enough flakes bring the glass indoors and allow it to thaw at room temperature for about 15 min. Now you have a permanent record of your snowflakes!

Note: I received this e-mail from a Finnish meteorologist with this suggestion:

My boss (Pirkko Saarikivi) made her PhD thesis on snowflakes and she used a new version of the hairspray method: The Nobecutan method. Nobecutan (Trademark of Astra Meditec, Sweden) is normally used to cover small injuries especially in head and animals. I guess your drugstore has something similar.

Catch Snowflakes to View Under a Microscope

Adapted from "Discovery On Ice" aired Feb. 21, 1995. Project contributed by Dr. Daniel Hutt.

 What you will need:

  • box with a lid
  • can of "Crystal Clear*" spray
  • glass microscope slides
  • microscope
Crystal Clear is a liquid plastic that can be sprayed on a surface and then hardens to form a thin transparent film. Spray the Crystal Clear onto one of the glass slides and let some snowflakes fall on it. The liquid plastic will slowly creep up over the snowflakes and form a shell that replicates every detail of each snowflake. After the plastic dries you will have a permanent replica.

Before you begin, it is important to leave the box with spray can and glass slides outdoors overnight so that everything is exactly the same temperature as the falling snow. If the spray or slides are just a little bit warm, the snowflakes will melt immediately when they land on the plate and be lost.

Now, spray one of the slides with the plastic, holding the slide out into the wind until you are ready to catch the snowflakes. There. Now for the fun part - hold the slide out and in just a few seconds you will have collected enough snowflakes. To keep the slide from getting too much snow, put it back into the box.

Leave the wet slide in the box for several hours until the plastic hardens. Later, when you bring the slide inside, the snowflakes will melt but the plastic shell will remain, preserving the shape of the snowflakes forever!

Once the replicas are dry you can carefully examine the snowflakes under a microscope without worrying about melting them.  If you collect snowflakes you will notice that the beautiful star shaped snowflakes are rather rare. Often you have needle or column shaped crystals or irregular crystals. The shape of each snowflake depends on the variations of temperature and humidity it experiences along its path as it forms within the cloud and falls to the ground. Each snowflake follows a unique path which is why all snowflakes are different from each other.

More Snow Science Activities

  • Make a snow gauge.

  • Take an old clear plastic soda pop bottle and cut off the top half. Mark the outside in centimeters or inches with a permanent laundry marker and place it outside in a place where it can collect the falling snow.
  • Measure how much melted snow it takes to make water.

  • Collect some snow in a container and record the level of snow on the container. Let the snow melt. how much water is there? Are you surprised at the difference?
  • Make your own glacier.

  • Fill a bowl with snow and bring it inside to partially thaw, then add more snow on top. Keep doing this all winter long. You will then have the "layers" of ice and snow like a glacier.
  • Here is an activity sent in by Joyce from Tahoe Ca.

  • Heat a 2 liter soda bottle in the microwave - have an adult help you do this!
    Put the lid on and put it outside in the cold.

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