December 26, 2010 in Idaho Voices

Take time to enjoy snowflakes’ beauty

Michelle Boss

The first day of winter (which was Tuesday) was relatively snow free across the region. In fact, the first three weeks of December saw less than 10 inches of snow for Coeur d’Alene with only 5.9 inches in Spokane. Because of a bountifully snowy November, seasonal totals are still nearly 30 inches above normal in Coeur d’Alene and 16 inches above normal in Spokane.

The other day while snowboarding at Silver Mountain in Kellogg, I was able to shift my focus away from the big picture of snow amounts, to the “little picture” of the individual snowflake. Temperatures were nice and chilly that day, and I was able to see the perfect little white stars as they landed on my jacket.

Of course we’re all familiar with the type of snowflake called the “dendrite” which looks like those white paper snowflakes that we cut out in elementary school. But not all snowflakes are shaped like these 6 sided beauties, and the size and shape of a snowflake depends on its water content and the temperature in the cloud at which it formed.

At the coldest temperatures, snowflakes will usually form into hexagonal columns or plates – not the form that one usually imagines. Needles and hollow columns become the more prevalent shapes at temperatures between about 15-25 degrees Fahrenheit. The pretty dendrites, or star-shaped snowflakes, become more common with higher moisture content and temperatures between minus 5 and minus 15 degrees and then again with higher moisture content and temperatures between 25 and 32 degrees.

Snowflakes come in an infinite number of designs and can be composed of a singular ice crystal, or a conglomeration of many ice crystals. Despite their numerous forms, their 6-sidedness is derived from the molecular level. The water molecules (each made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom) in each ice crystal are linked together in a way that forms a hexagonal lattice. For a visual of that, picture a honeycomb pattern. Of course the best way to investigate snowflakes is to collect them and see them close up for yourself. Next time temperatures are below freezing and it’s snowing, collect some snow on a piece of black construction paper, look and enjoy!

Now that we’ve passed the winter solstice – which was the shortest day of the year with only eight hours and 25 minutes of daylight – we’ll actually start gaining daylight minutes little by little each day. The coldest average temperatures are seen from the last week of December to the first week of January, though we know that we can be hit with weather extremes during any part of the season.

Michelle Boss can be reached at weatherboss@

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