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Are All Snowflakes Really Different?

Are All Snowflakes Really Different?

You’ve probably heard the bit of folk wisdom that claims no two snowflakes are alike, but is it true?

The simple answer is that there is no possible way to answer that question with certainty, because it is impossible to compare every snowflake that has ever fallen, or will ever fall, with every other snowflake.

A more satisfying answer is that, because every tiny snowflake that falls is literally made up of quintillions of water molecules, the statistical likelihood of any two of them having the exact same structure is incredibly slim, even over millions of years.

Snowflakes form when water vapor in the air freezes into a solid and falls to Earth. Their intricate hexagonal patterns reflect the pattern two three-part water molecules — made up of two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen each — create when they bond together. Their exact form is influenced heavily by external factors, such as temperature, humidity, and wind. Given similar conditions it is possible for two snowflakes to be similar enough that they would look roughly identical under magnification, but it would be highly unlikely for the same person to view them.

This principle was demonstrated in the late 19th Century by photographer Wilson Alwyn Bentley, who shot more than 5,000 separate snowflake “portraits” over the course of his career. He perfected a technique of catching the snowflakes on a piece of back velvet and filming them before they could melt. In more than 40 years of capturing snowflake images, Bentley never photographed two that were identical.

6 comments

1 Alicya Rose { 02.01.12 at 10:35 am }

thanks very much, this helped me with my homework :D

2 Trudy { 01.10.11 at 11:28 am }

I have a weather question indirectly concerning snowflakes. As a journalist you are well versed on a lot of topics so my question may provide a subject for a future article. Do you think the shift in the magnetic poles will cause great weather changes? This morning the southern part of the country is experiencing winter conditions normal for us here in MN but highly unusual for the south. Enjoyed your article & have seen books of photographs showing individual snowflakes.

3 Jaime McLeod { 01.05.11 at 3:12 pm }

Aw, shucks. You ladies are making me blush. Thanks for reading!

4 Laurie Smith { 01.05.11 at 2:51 pm }

Great article. Jaime is an excellent writer. I always enjoy her articles. Very thought provoking.
thanks Jaime
Laurie

5 Judy { 01.05.11 at 10:13 am }

I really enjoy all of Jaime McLeod’s articles! Great writer!

6 mary r lawson { 01.05.11 at 8:36 am }

my father got the almanac when i was a small child and it helped me learn to read and i still love it and online too thx a lot to all of you

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