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Behind the Forecast: What makes snowflakes unique

Listen to Science Behind the Forecast with Meteorologist Tawana Andrew every Friday on 89.3 WFPL at 7:45 a.m.
Updated: Jan. 8, 2021 at 8:39 AM EST
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - It’s officially Winter, so snowflakes are nothing out of the ordinary.

A snowflake forms when extremely cold water droplets freeze onto a dust particle or another infinitesimally small object like pollen, creating an ice crystal.

As the ice crystal falls through a cloud and to the ground, water vapor freezes onto the ice crystal, eventually creating the symmetrical six-sided snowflake we all know. A snowflake’s symmetry is a reflection of the internal organization of the crystal’s water molecules.

Temperature and humidity determine an ice crystal’s shape. Plate-like, flat crystals are seen around 5°F, while needle-like crystals formed around 23°F. Six-pointed snowflakes are commonly found in the Northern Hemisphere due to the ratio of humidity to temperature in this area.

If Cloud Temperatures Are...Snowflake Shape Will be...
32 to 25 FThin hexagonal plates and stars
25 to 21 FNeedle-like
21 to 14 FHollow columns
14 to 10 FSector plates
10 to 3 FStar-shaped "dendrites"
-10 to -30 FPlates, columns

Each snowflake is unique because it takes a different path through the sky, encountering unique conditions in the atmosphere as it travels.

Clusters of crystals or crystal fragments make up snowflakes. Due to this, they can grow to three to four inches wide. Snowflakes 10 inches wide have been reported, according to the American Meteorology Society.

While they appear white, snowflakes are clear. The ice is translucent, so light passes through it indirectly. The multiple sides of ice crystals scatter the light in many directions, causing the snowflake to appear white.

Their light weight causes snowflakes fall slowly through our atmosphere, falling at around one to six feet per second. An average raindrop falls near 32 feet per second.

There are quite a few types of snowflakes, including the following:

  • Simple prisms
  • Stellar plates
  • Stellar dendrites
  • Sectored plates
  • Hollow columns
  • Needles
  • Capped columns
  • Fern-like stellar dendrites
  • Double plates
  • Triangular crystals
  • Split plates and stars
  • Radiating dendrites
  • Bullet rosettes
  • Rimed crystals
  • Irregular crystals
  • 12-sided snowflakes

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