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The Complexities of a Snowflake

First, it’s important to understand how snow is different from ice. Ice is when liquid water turns into a solid (ice). Snow is when gas (in the form of water vapor) turns straight to a solid, skipping the liquid stage. 

A snowflakes’ shape depends somewhat on the environment in which the snowflake is forming. Temperature, humidity, or change in course of descent might change the shape or size of a snowflake. By the way, the temperature on the ground often plays a factor as well in the texture of the snow. For example, warmer ground temperatures cause wetter and easier to pack snow, because the liquid water molecules help the snow stick together. However, although the conditions are relatively different between snowflakes, they’re similar on all of the “points” or ends of the snowflake, which makes the snowflake symmetrical.

In order to explain the structure and shape of a snowflake, one must have some background in chemistry. A water molecule is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. They form a bond where the hydrogen atoms are at 104.5º from each other (there is an exact reason for this, and I’d be happy to explain more in-depth, but for time’s purposes, I won’t here. If you are really interested in this and want to know the ins and outs, please feel free to contact me and I’ll give you a fuller picture). Although the complete molecule is neutral in charge, the hydrogen is slightly more positive and the oxygen is slightly more negative. This allows for a hydrogen bond (a weak bond between oxygen from one molecule and hydrogen from another). Because of the exact degree to which the atoms are arranged within the molecule (at that 104.5º angel), and because of the hydrogen bond, when the energy of the water molecules “settle” down, they form a hexagonal structure with each other. This process happens on repeat until you get a “colony” of these hexagonal structures, which are the core of the snowflake. More water molecules then accumulate and freeze on the tips/end of the structure, allowing the snowflakes to start to branch out into their signature shapes. 

Next time you’re playing in the snow, have fun, but remember also to appreciate the intricacy and uniqueness of the process of the snowflake!

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