Whenever the National Weather Service issues a winter weather advisory or a winter storm warning due to snow, we get mixed reactions from the public. Some love snow, some hate it.

No matter how a person feels about winter weather, there is a unanimous fascination with snow. Watching trillions upon trillions of snowflakes fall to the ground and accumulate to form piles of snow is like watching a miracle unfold. There is power in numbers. A snowflake weighs approximately one millionth of a gram. A cubic foot of snow contains around a billion snow crystals. Multiply that by thousands of square miles from a snowstorm, and the number of snowflakes increases exponentially.

To think, it all begins with a speck of dust. As dust or other particles in a cloud encounter freezing temperatures, the water vapor in the cloud freezes to the particle. The particle may get lofted into the cloud where it could grow and experience different temperature and moisture conditions to form various branches of the ice crystal.

Eventually, the crystal becomes heavy enough to fall to the ground. You may have heard the saying, “No two snowflakes are alike.” That is scientifically true, as it’s impossible for two ice crystals to form under the exact same temperature and moisture conditions. However, scientists have discovered that many snowflakes are almost identical, even examined under a strong microscope.

All snowflakes have a six-sided structure, which is another mesmerizing fact about snow. Water vapor molecules collected together to form ice always form in hexagons. Depending on its life inside the cloud, snowflakes can fall as various six-sided shapes including dendrites, columns and needles.

If winter makes you want to crawl under the covers and wait until spring, there are ways to make winter fun.

Play with snow. I’m not talking about making snow angels (although nobody is too old for snow angels). Be your own scientist and research snow. Monitor the weather conditions to determine if the size of snowflakes and their moisture content are dependent on the air temperature, humidity and wind (the answer is yes).

Examine individual snowflakes on black construction paper using a magnifying glass. Find the moisture content of snow by taking a core sample of the snow depth, then melt the snow and pour the liquid into a rain gage. Typically, the ratio is 10:1 (that is, 0.10 inch of liquid for every inch of snow). For the true scientist, determine the pH levels of snow using pH test strips. For kids of all ages, there is a world out there waiting to be explored.

There are miracles every day that we take for granted. As you watch snow fall from the sky, think how one snowflake that weighs one millionth of a gram combine with other tiny snowflakes and forms a massive amount of snow in a matter of hours.

It’s truly fascinating.


Mary Wister is a meteorologist and fire weather program manager at the National Weather Service in Pendleton. Wister serves as an incident meteorologist when large wildfires or other natural hazards necessitate an Incident Management Team’s quick response to protect life and property.

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