Living in the Four Corners, we are blessed with the opportunity to enjoy all four seasons of the year, and now is the time to enjoy the splendor of a Colorado winter.
This time of year brings cold weather, brilliant sunny days and, thankfully this season, plenty of snow so far.
Freshly fallen snow is one of the most beautiful sights of the season. Despite its beauty, however, there is a complex science to snowflakes, and taking the time to learn about it is fascinating. This information will allow you to get to know your snow better, and perhaps have more respect for it the next time you are shoveling the sidewalk at 6 a.m. Or maybe not, but it is worth a shot.
To begin our studies, we must explore the creation of snow. A snow crystal is made of dust, air and frozen water, and forms when water molecules attach to particles of dust in the air. Snow crystals are not snowflakes; they are the individual shapes that form high in the atmosphere - in fact, when you cut a "paper snowflake," you are actually cutting a "paper snow crystal" - it is when snow crystals clump together that a snowflake is formed.
The least-complex snow crystal shape is the simple prism. Snow crystals often start as a simple prism, and change over time depending on temperatures and conditions. Although it is true that all snowflakes and crystals are unique, in the sky they all have six sides.
There are three main snow crystal types that form once snow falls. The first is "rounds." Rounds form from destructive processes. Newly fallen crystals break down and water vapor evaporates from the crystal "arms" to form rounded ice grains. Typically, rounds form strong bonds with each other and may indicate, along with a number of other factors that must be considered, a stable snowpack.
The second type is "squares." Unlike rounds that break down, squares grow or come from constructive processes. Water molecules are transferred from crystal to crystal and form angular shapes. Squares do not bond well together and are prone to sliding. This type is also commonly referred to as "sugar snow."
The third crystal type is "melt-freeze." Melting causes water to move between crystals and form "necks." Later freezing causes the crystals to bond to the necks, thus increasing the strength of a snowpack. The weight of the snowpack can also force crystals closer together in this manner - air spaces are removed and density increases.
So get outside and enjoy the wonder of winter and all it has to offer. Just remember, the type of crystals will affect the stability of snowpack, and knowing how to identify each one (combined with other factors that influence the likelihood of avalanches) is important knowledge to have before traveling through the backcountry in winter.
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Gretchen Lamar is program manager for Durango