Snow Snowflakes Ice Crystals Snowflake Formation Winter Weather

When I was a child, the most essential piece of snow equipment, stationed right next to the shovel by the front porch, was a yard stick. If the snow measured six or more inches deep, school would be cancelled for the day. Unfortunately, we only had one or two snow days in all of the years of my schooling. Our city knew how to handle snowfalls, and life was relatively unhampered. What a contrast to the rural area of Kentucky where my children began their scholastic careers.

There, the threat of snow accompanied by one noticeable flake closed the schools for days. One winter, we suffered through 43 snow days, and subsequently went to school on Saturdays well into the month of June. The intimidation of the white stuff was easier to understand after I attended a court hearing at which snow and ice management was the topic.

The county engineer explained why he needed six people to operate one salt truck. One person drives the truck, and one per rode in the cab, except on a hill, when he has to walk ahead of the truck to determine whether the truck can make it up the grade. Two men stand in the bed of the truck to shovel the salt onto the highway. A fifth person stays at the office to answer the telephone, and the sixth person is required to cover absences from illness or vacation.

I would have been amused by this had I not just moved there from a state where the flat landscape allowed snow to blow for two counties before it piled up on my driveway.

Snowflakes have long captured the attentions of serious scientists and casual admirers. Science tells us that no two flakes, or “snow blossoms” as they were called in 19th century Japan, are alike. But, no one has discovered why this is true. Snowflakes are actually an accumulation of crystals, each one containing ten sextillion molecules. The core of the snowflake remains a mystery. We can put a robot on Mars, but we haven’t a clue whether a snowflake begins as a tiny particle of matter or an ice splinter which then attracts as many as 10,000 droplets of water all together smaller than the head of a pin.

The snowflake crystallizes in the upper atmosphere miles above earth, gathers water vapor as it spins on a vertical axis producing its uniform, symmetrical and usually hexagonal shape. The journey to the ground can be up to six miles. Perhaps I should feel honored that this tiny hexagon of crystalline majesty and perfection traveled so far to grace my driveway.

You might think that years of slipping, sliding and skidding would dampen my anticipation for the first snowfall of winter. But, even dressing three pre-schoolers in snowsuits, mittens, boots, scarves and caps, and undressing them after five minutes of outdoor play hasn’t discouraged me. I am either an incurable romantic or, I learned long ago that, choosing to live in the snow belt, I might as well enjoy the weather.

If prejudice can be overcome by knowledge, it must help somehow to know that snowflakes are really individual ice crystals containing an incomprehensible number of water droplets in a basic 6-sided shape. If nothing else, a look out the window at the graceful dance of snow transforming a bleak, gray winter day into a fairyland of surprise and delight, has to outweigh the dread of shoveling and driving.