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The Scientific Classification of Snow Crystals

Mother Nature delights us with some of the most beautiful art imaginable throughout the year.  This is especially true during the winters we enjoy in northern climates.  Mother Nature is also the ultimate scientist and there is a tremendous degree of scientific principle associated with the formation of a snow crystal.  On this page, we will only be able to look at the very basics regarding the science behind snow crystals, but before I do, we need to make certain that everyone understands the basic difference between a snow flake and a snow crystal. 

Snow flakes can be nothing more than one, individual snow crystal, but more often than not, are made up of several, sometimes hundreds of snow crystals. The example shown here on the right is what many people would call a big, fluffy snow flake.   

People have been studying snow crystals for hundreds and likely thousands of years.  I am certain that long before the dawn of recorded history, someone must have taken the time to look closely at these frozen elements that fall from the sky and noticed the beautiful symmetric structure that makes up a snow crystal.  One of my snow crystal heroes lived about 150 years ago.  He was one of the most interesting pioneers who built an amazing photographic collection of snow crystals.  Indeed, he was not even a formally trained scientist, rather a farmer by trade who had cultivated an interest in photography and in particular, the snow crystal.  His name was Wilson A. Bentley and he lived in Vermont back in the 1800's.  You can learn more about his amazing work through the Buffalo Museum of Science, home to his original collection.

One of the first scientists to work at classifying the different types of snow crystals was a Japanese researcher by the name of Ukichiro Nakaya.  He worked in a laboratory environment "growing" snow crystals under various conditions of temperature and moisture.  The results of his extensive research were compiled into what we know today as the Nakaya Diagram, which summaries the conditions necessary in the atmosphere to produce the several varieties of snow crystal he studied.


Nakaya's work was expanded upon by another set of Japanese researchers, Magono and Lee, who conducted extensive field work to further refine the association between moisture, temperature and snow crystal type.

They went on to develop an extensive classification technique for the wide array of snow crystal types.  Their work serves as a basis for classification today.  Click on the charts on the left and you will see the numerous types of crystals.  When looking through my photo gallery, see if you can match the photo with its crystal type.


I mentioned a "sweet spot" in temperature range that is best for dendritic crystal growth in referring to Magono's chart above.  Indeed, the temperature range between -10C and -20C is a perfect environment to get a tremendous variety of beautiful crystals.  If you can combine those temperature conditions in the clouds where crystals grow and keep winds very light so that the crystals do not get destroyed by getting banged and bounced around too much on their flight down to earth, you can end up with wonderful bounty of crystals.

One of my best sampling days occurred under those conditions.  I have displayed the atmospheric temperature and wind sounding taken on January 14, 2009 at Buffalo, NY, about 15 miles from my sampling location, in the image on the right.  Click on it to see the atmospheric conditions.  Below you can click on a few examples of crystals I captured on that day, it was one of the best days I can remember!    



Created by Mother Nature - photographs by Tom Niziol  Copyright 2009