Updated: Dec 22, 2020
A snowflake exploration
Properties of Matter
States of Matter
Atomic Bonds & Molecules
Matter & Interactions
Integrated Art & Language Arts
Tools & Material
Snow (freshly fallen snow is most ideal)
Snow crystal collection surface: a piece of clean, dark cloth, felt, or construction paper
Magnifying glass (optional)
Camera or phone with built-in camera (optional)
Citizen Science Lake Tahoe application (optional)
Science notebook, nature journal or paper & pencil
To Do & Notice
Are all snowflakes the same? What factors influence the shape, size and structure of snowflakes?
2. Make a Claim:
Do you think that all snowflakes (or snow crystals as scientists refer to them) are the same? What might cause snowflakes to differ?
Have you heard of Snowflake Bentley? He was a farmer-scientist from Vermont and was the first person to photograph a single snow crystal in 1885. Watch this reading of Snowflake Bentley’s story with Ashley.
Modern snow scientists are learning how to “read” snow crystals to find out their stories. By observing the shape and size of the snow crystal, scientists can tell what was happening in the cloud when the snow crystal was formed and how that snow crystal changed over time as conditions changed through it’s travels.
4. Collect Data: (Note: data collection must happen at a time when snow is precipitating from the sky.)
Cool your snow crystal collection surface (dark cloth, felt, or construction paper) by placing it outside or in your freezer.
While it cools, check out this snowflake guide to get an idea of the many types of snow crystals.
Create a science notebook (or nature journal) entry by writing date, time & location as well as weather conditions (details may include: temperature, cloud cover, wind speed and direction).
When there is active snow precipitation, head outside with your cooled snow crystal collection surface (dark cloth, felt, or construction paper). Hold it out, and collect snow crystals. Be gentle, they are very fragile! Also, avoid breathing on snow crystals or placing on other warm surfaces...they will melt!
Observe and examine your snow crystals. If available, use your magnifying lense to capture details. Record your observations in your scientific notebook (or nature journal).
Optional: Take a picture of your snowflake.
Optional: Become a snowflake Citizen Scientist with the Desert Research Institute’s Stories in the Snow Project and share your snow crystal pictures to help inform snow data research.
5. Analyze and Interpret Data:
What kind of snow crystals did you see? Use the snowflake guide to help name the types of crystals you observed. Did you identify any types of snow crystals that you learned about from the guide?
What conditions cause the shapes of snow crystals you saw? Use the graphics and information in the “Resources” & “Going Further” sections below to learn how humidity and temperature influence snow crystal shape. What can you tell from the shape of the snow crystals that you saw about the conditions in the air and the cloud?
6. Arts & Language Integration: Make Your Own Paper Snowflake
Once you complete your snowflake, write a short story about your snow crystal in your science notebook (or nature journal).
Where did your water droplet come from?
What was it like in the cloud where it turned into a snow crystal?
What was it like when it fell out of the cloud
What happened to it once it landed? Was it skied on? Made into a snowperson? Thrown as a snowball?
7. Communicate Your Findings:
Share your paper snow flake, snow flake photos or scienctific notebook or nature journal with SWEP. Post photos of you with your snowflake on social media and tag us @sweptahoe on Instagram and/or to @swep4 on Facebook. Be sure to hashtag and follow #SWEPsnippets. If you cannot post directly yourself, send SWEP your photo (Jenna@4swep.org). This way we can all see each other's snowflakes!
What’s Going On
What are snow crystals?
Snow Crystals are formed from water vapor that condenses directly into ice inside of clouds. Snow crystals take shape as water vapor condenses and freezes on the surface of a seed crystal. Patterns emerge as these crystals grow. The seed crystal itself forms on a tiny particle (like a speck of dust) in the air, which serves as a base for ice growth.
Snowflakes are not created from frozen raindrops. Liquid water that freezes in the atmosphere as it falls to the ground is actually sleet. Hail is a large piece of sleet that collects water and grows as it travels from the atmosphere to the ground.
What makes snow crystals different shapes?
Atmospheric elements like temperature, wind, wind speed and humidity affect the shape of snow crystals.
At low humidity you get simple plates and simple hexagonal blocks and at higher humidity, more branched structures.
Kenneth Libbrecht, a physics professor at the California Institute of Technology, says “It’s a mystery as to why [snowflake shapes] go from plates to columns to plates to columns as the temperature lowers,” he said. “That’s one of the things I’ve been trying to understand. It has been a mystery for about 75 years, and it’s still unsolved.”
Do you want to be the snow scientist to be the one to figure this out??? There are many unanswered questions out there waiting for you to study!
Why are no two snowflakes alike? Watch this video to find out the science behind it.
This infographic from lazcreative.com shows the construction of a snowflake:
Can you create your own frost?
Gather: two metal cans (clean bean or soup cans with label removed), salt and crushed ice or snow.
Put the same amount of snow/ice in each can.
In one can, add a liberal amount of salt and mix into the snow/ice.
Which can do you think will create frost first? Why?
Observe what happens…
Was your claim correct? What is happening? Why do you think the can that created the frost first created it faster? Learn more here.
Like engineering? Can you build a mini igloo out of ice cubes?
Get a large bowl of ice cubes and bring outside (the colder the better, so stay out of the sun!)
Optional, freeze ice cubes with food coloring added in to create a colorful dome! See a lifesize version here.
Form your igloo! Use the snow, water and ice to create the dome shaped structure. Mix water and snow to form the mortar between bricks (ice cubes).
How do igloos work?
Thanks to our partners at Winter Wildland Alliance's SnowSchool and Tahoe Cross Country Ski Education Association for supporting student’s snow science learning activities.