Art and science of snowflakes

Art and science of snowflakes
Wilson Bentley--snowflakes

Lovely snowflakes, they fall nowhere else!   Zen saying

Consider  a snowflake, individual and ephemeral.

Wilson A. Bentley (1865-1931) spent his entire life studying and photographing snowflakes on his farm outside Joshua, Vermont.  He rigged up a microscope and bellows camera and worked in a cold barn, capturing the first microphotographs of snowflakes.  Known as "The Snowflake Man," Bentley  produced over 5000  photographs of snow crystals.

His book--Snow Crystals-- is still a reference today. The original is out of print,  but a paperback reprint is available from Dover Publications.

There is a website dedicated to Wilson Bentley's life and work. You can also read more about him here.  There is also a Caldecott medal-winning book for kids. Snowflake Bentley is a picture book written by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrated by Mary Azarian.

Bentley's study of snowflakes, and their infinite variety,  led him to state, "no two snowflakes are alike."  Indeed, he discovered that the form and shape varies with  weather conditions.

Snow is formed when water vapor in clouds freezes into ice crystals. Snowflakes, or snow crystals, are all six-sided.

Why is this?  It is the nature of water--the  two hydrogen atoms bonding with oxygen. The water molecule has a tetrahedron (3-sided) form.  As water freezes, the tetrahedrons crystallize into a six-ring structure.

Here's how NOAA explains the diversity of snowflakes--

Ultimately, it is the temperature at which a crystal forms — and to a lesser extent the humidity of the air — that determines the basic shape of the ice crystal. Thus, we see long needle-like crystals at 23 degrees F and very flat plate-like crystals at 5 degrees F (emphasis mine).   The intricate shape of a  single arm of the snowflake is determined by the atmospheric conditions experienced by the entire ice crystal as it falls.

A crystal might begin to grow arms in one manner, and then minutes or even seconds later, slight changes in the surrounding temperature or humidity causes the crystal to grow in another way. Although the six-sided shape is always maintained, the ice crystal (and its six arms) may branch off in new directions. Because each arm experiences the same atmospheric conditions, the arms look identical.


Individual snowflakes follow different paths from the sky, encountering slightly different atmospheric  conditions along the way. That's why they tend to look unique, prisms or  needles or lacy patterns.

I hope you are inspired by the science of snowflakes, how they form, why they are so different. The story of Wilson Bentley is inspiring, too. One person, in his dedication, patience  and  vision, shared  beauty and information with the world. He  never made much money with his snowflake photos, and they are now all in the public domain.

Utagawa Hiroshige. Kanbara, Evening Snow, from the series The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road ,  c. 1833–34. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Utagawa Hiroshige. Kanbara, Evening Snow, from the series The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road ,
c. 1833–34. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Almost as ephemeral as Bentley's snowflakes, there are Hiroshige winter prints currently on display at  The Art Institute of Chicago.  But don't wait too long. Like the snow, they will soon be gone. These snowy  prints will be on display until March 20.



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  • I love those snowflakes! I wish I could take photos like that!

  • In reply to Kathy Mathews:

    Thanks for reading, Kathy! Bentley's photos are really beautiful, and way before digital photography, too.

  • Beautiful job, WG. BTW, Robert Hooke drew the snowflake in his book Micrographia in 1665. His sketches show the symmetry and complexity of its structure.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thank you so much, AW. Robert Hooke was a remarkable mind! Wilson Bentley started with sketches of snowflakes, too. Very difficult! Maybe that's why he turned to photography....

  • Thanks, Weather Girl! I'd have commented earlier, but the actual snowflakes helped keep me out of action for a while. Thanks for a dual reminder (artistic and scientific) of their beauty.

  • Thank you, MargaretSerious for stopping by today. There sure are plenty of snowflakes to appreciate this year!

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