How To Look at a Snowflake

© Copyright 2021 Jillian Zapatos, Ryerson University.

It is easy to see the white mass that is snow as a nuisance over your cars, your sidewalks, your windows, and your favourite pair of shoes, however, I find it extremely interesting that we easily forget the complexity and beauty of a single snowflake. The saying, “no two snowflakes are ever the same” is a lot to wrap my head around. Each snowflake is unique in shape, size, and design. Humidity levels and temperature plays a big part in how different types of snowflakes are formed.

This diagram illustrates the different snowflakes that can form based on the temperature and humidity levels.
Libbrecht, Kenneth. Snowflake Morphology, Diagram. Science Photo Library Limited. Web. 5 February 2021

Unless you are truly looking for a snowflake, it is easy to pay it no mind—especially when a recent snowstorm has just hit. It is amazing to think about how inches of snow are made up of tiny, uniquely shaped precipitation. Snowflakes are formed when extremely cold-water droplets collide with any dust or pollen during its descent from the atmosphere (NOAA). According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “no two snowflakes are exactly alike” due to the different paths that individual snowflakes take when descending to the ground, leaving many different conditions for them to float through (NOAA). Figure 1 is a graph that displays the different types of snowflakes based on the temperature and humidity levels that the flakes encounter as they fall from the atmosphere.

While we are more familiar with the snowflakes that have five-to-six sides, there are, in fact, at least thirty-five more different types of snowflakes (Libbrecht). Some come in the shape of needles, hollow columns, simple prisms, and many more. It is so easy to forget that snowflakes can look more than just those decorations that people put up once a year, or the little flake that you managed to catch on your finger as a child playing outside during a light snowfall.

Upon closer inspection, these snowflakes have so much more to them and require a focused stare, rather than a quick glance to be able to notice and appreciate the complexity of the tiny mixture of air particles and cold water. When your eyes glaze over a snowflake, it is only a few seconds before the flake begins to melt into the snow below it, or into the warmth that is radiating onto your clothes or your skin, leaving nothing more than a small concentration of liquid behind. Just a slight change in temperature and humidity can turn what could have been a hexagonal, plate-like formation, seen in Figure 1, into a snowflake that resembles small needles, also shown in Figure 1.

Snowflakes are translucent; however, they appear white due to the reflections that occur when light hits the tiny frozen crystals as they float through the air (“Snowflake”). This translucency can best be seen when you catch a snowflake on the palm of your hands or your fingertips, but this will only leave you a few quick seconds to appreciate the flake before it has completely melted. It is interesting to note that such tiny things such as snowflakes require the utmost attention to be able to appreciate them. Due to the nature of their existence, you must dedicate hard, focused staring during the little time you have before the flake melts, or dissolves into the surface that it has landed on. The closer you look at a snowflake, the more details you notice—but the more you look, the less time you have to appreciate it. It is interesting to think about how such a fleeting, beautiful work of nature can only be appreciated for only a few moments.

Works Cited

Elkins, James. How to Use Your Eyes. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.

NOAA. How Do Snowflakes Form? Get the Science behind Snow. 19 Dec. 2016,

Libbrecht, Kenneth G. Guide to Snowflakes, 1 Feb. 1999,

“Snowflake.” Met Office,,to%20be%20white%20in%20colour.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.