Some of nature’s coolest elements are sitting right on your doormat. A little flurry can provide tons of interesting fun for kids, especially following that first snowflake.
Beyond the novelty of this wintry icon, a host of interesting facts can dazzle young snow-dwellers long after the season’s first dusting. To get a handle on some of the best facts about snowflakes, I caught up with Ken Libbrecht, Caltech physicist, author of a half-dozen books about snowflakes, and founder of SnowCrystals.com. Here are seven neat tidbits you can share with your kids.
They’re Not All Different!
Yep, it’s a myth. Contrary to popular belief, there can be two of the same snowflake. In fact, Libbrecht demonstrates how this is the case in his own lab. When the conditions are just so, “identical twins” can be produced.
They Can Get Pretty Big
Some sources claim to have up to fifteen-inch snowflakes on file. Libbrecht, however, says it was likely a puff ball, or an amalgamation of many snowflakes that banded together as they condensed. A true monster crystal is likely a little smaller than a penny, which is still pretty impressive given the fragility of the average snowflake.
Snowflakes Aren’t White
Snow crystals are completely transparent, but they reflect light so well that many of them together (say, an inch or two high on the pavement) appear white. Deep snow may look blue, and in certain areas of wetland, algae runoff may even lend a barely visible pink tint to a flake-filled snowfall.
Some Snowflakes Don’t Look Like Snowflakes
Next time it snows, join your kids outside and watch your coat sleeve; you’ll likely catch some cool shapes that are wildly different from the iconic star flake you expect to see. Formations may include triangular or hexagonal plates and long columnar snow crystals, some of which can come out hollow. To identify the latter, just look for what appear to be tiny white hairs—not the average snowflake—on your sleeve or glove.
Seeing Snow Is Still Pretty Rare
About half of the world’s population has never seen snow—most of which are (not surprisingly) in the southern hemisphere, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory. It’s been estimated that almost as many people won’t experience the joys of this fluffy stuff in their own backyard. Geographic, economic, and social barriers prevent many of those who live in tropical areas from traveling to snowy places, and those once-in-a-lifetime weather events that do afford the occasional flurry are just that: rare. Keep in mind much of today’s climatology also considers global warming and snow fall to be related, causing this estimate to rise in the future.
Libbrecht’s website shows a diagram that explains how humidity and temperature work together to create different types of snowflakes. “Go ahead,” he coaxes readers, “take a closer look.” It is definitely remarkable that, per this infographic, you can probably tell your family which shapes of snowflake will accumulate on their eyelashes should they step outside on a winter evening. Even more remarkable, however, is that although scientists can tell us how they develop, they still have yet to figure out why the molecules do exactly what they do. Beautiful they may be, their formation is still a mystery.
Rain that freezes before it hits the ground is called sleet. Snow crystals are ice that has transformed from vapor, not water. The more vapor that condenses as the crystal travels through clouds, the more branching you’ll see.
If your children are insatiably curious, they might just be a young physicist in the making. The science that Libbrecht and like-minded researchers perform is called curiosity-driven investigation, and it’s for the sake of knowing—that’s it! Knowing is worth the effort of learning, and for kids, these natural “wow” moments are more than just worth it when buried in a few nifty facts about snowflakes.
“I always like to encourage people—adults as well as children—to go outside and take a close look at the falling snow,” says Libbrecht. “A small magnifier can reveal all sorts of fascinating structures you never knew existed. But dress warmly; the best snowflakes often appear in the coldest weather.”
Playing with nature’s prettiest products is the best way to encourage young conservationists to care for the planet. When you dazzle the next generation with cool facts, it’s more than just for fun; they’re more likely to make choices on behalf of their environment.
How do you celebrate the miracle of snowflakes? Games? Crafts? Post a picture and tag @TomsofMaine!
Image source: Bethany Johnson | Flickr
This article was brought to you by Tom’s of Maine. The views and opinions expressed by the author do not reflect the position of Tom’s of Maine.