The “classic” type of snowflake, a stellar dendrite and the kind we are most familiar with in popular culture and Christmas cartoons. Also one of my most beautiful – but the symmetry is an illusion!
Many snowflake feel properly balanced, but the closer you look the more you realize that true symmetry isn’t here. The larger features line the bigger side-branches are pretty close, but the clusters of broad branches closer to the center show greater deviation. It’s long been said that you can’t find two snowflakes alike, but it’s also true that two branches on the same snowflake are never quite the same down to the tiniest details.
It’s amazing that they could appear similar at all, since there is nothing that directly ties the growth of each branch together other than each branch growing in incredibly similar conditions. Same wind direction, same humidity and temperature yield the same results. The tiniest imbalance will affect snowflake growth, so the differences we see from one side of a snowflake to another is because the conditions, even across the width of a snowflake, rarely stay constant.
This little gem has a unique feature too: multiple layers of side-branches. Look at any of the broad clusters of branches and you’ll see some growing in front of others. How can this be if a snowflake only has a single edge? There are a number of possibilities, including crystal splitting where a cavity forms along the edge of the snowflake effectively splitting a single edge into two new edges. Another possibility is that a thick ridge along the “spine” of a branch grows so thick that it begins to plateau like the top of an anvil and provides branches another surface to grow out from. I believe that both of these are at play here.
In this series, you’ll see plenty of beautiful and unusual snowflakes, but this should not be considered an average sampling of what falls from the sky. I’ll often overlook thousands of snowflakes until something such as this one catches my attention and I photograph it. The average snowflake is nowhere near the symmetry this this crystal possesses; misshapen, cluttered, bumpy and blobby snow is far more commonly seen.
Still, the fact that nature, through all the atmospheric chaos, can create a gem like this? This snowflake won the lottery. :)
To hear more musings on the science of snowflakes and the most comprehensive photographic tutorial ever written on the subject, consider picking up one of the few remaining copies of Sky Crystals: https://www.skycrystals.ca/book (or the eBook: https://www.skycrystals.ca/ebook/ )
For a poster that contains over 400 snowflakes all placed to scale with each-other, look here: https://www.skycrystals.ca/poster - 2500 hours to create this thing, it’s definitely worth a look!
Also, for more of my general photography musings, why not give my podcast Photo Geek Weekly a listen? It can be found here: http://www.photogeekweekly.com/