Copper River Record October 2014
By Janelle Eklund
It was October 4 along the Kenai River near Cooper Landing. A bright crisp autumn winterish kind of day. Birch, Aspen, and cottonwood golden leaves still hung like ornaments on the trees. As we approached the summit of the narrow trail large fluffy white flakes of snow drifted down from a grey sky. They accented the last days of autumn colors and nearly morphed into water after touching down. Our hearts leaped at the beauty that surrounded us. Others, bundled up against the cool air, were out to enjoy the last vestiges of fall and welcome in the debut of winter.
A different kind of snow swirled around the car as we drove out of the Copper Basin on October 3. The flakes were smaller and dryer. And unlike Cooper Landing, when we got home 6 days later, about eight inches of the millions of flakes had accumulated and stayed on the ground.
Snowflakes are actually snow crystals and they are not made from raindrops. They actually are born from water vapor in clouds which changes into solid ice. Once the process begins and water vapor keeps clinging to the developing crystal and freezes, it forms beautiful patterns and shapes. Some of these snow crystals bump into each other as they are falling, creating more elaborate patterns. I think this is what was happening with the large flakes we saw at Cooper Landing. Although I wasn't able to capture one and look at it closely in a microscope.
It intrigues me that, out of all the millions of snowflakes that fall at any given time, no two are alike. They are as different as we are. And each one has its own theme. It could be a plate or a column. It could be branched, sectored or hollowed. And it could have six sides or twelve sides. Nature does not make eight, four, five or seven sided snow crystals. Mostly you will see six sided ones with some side branches. Sometimes the side branching is symmetrical but mostly not.
Some crystals could appear to have their structure decorated with beads. These are water droplets falling through the cloud and as it came in contact with the crystal it froze, creating little tiny beads throughout the crystal.
For all that goes into the intricacies in the birth of a snowflake, it's original shape is very short lived. Once it hits the ground it may melt if the ground has not frozen yet, as in September/October. But if the ground is frozen and it's cold enough, the crystals lay on top of each other where they bind and change form. It's now not just one flake but many flakes working together. Like a weaving, it makes a beautiful white blanket across the land to protect it and its inhabitants from the sub zero temperatures of winters breath. Weather influences what kind of form it takes too. The wind can play a part in the metamorphosis of the snowflake. Wind will pulverize it and get it moving like the mother hen scooting her brood along, packing it into hard snow drifts. Temperature also plays a role in the metamorphous of the snowflake. Snowflakes working together create a snowpack that is very insulating. The snow at the bottom of the layer can be 30° to 40° warmer than the top of the snow. Many people, including myself, have taken advantage of the snow pack to give the base of my house an extra layer of insulation.
There are whole books written on snow (see references). The mysteries of snow crystal formation still intrigue those that seek to learn its secrets.
"No weary journeys need be taken, no expensive machinery employed.... A winter's storm, an open window, a bit of fur or velvet, and a common magnifier, will bring any curious inquirer upon his field of observation with all the necessary apparatus, and he has only to open his eyes to find the grand and beautiful laboratory of nature open to his inspection." -Frances Chickering, Cloud Crystals: A Snow-Flake Album, 1864.
From my light to yours-
References: The Snowflake, Winter's Secret Beauty, by Kenneth Libbrecht; Apun The Arctic Snow by Matthew Sturm.
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.