How Are Snowflakes Made?

Updated: Dec 29, 2021

We love seeing them fall, catching them with our tongues, and packing them together for a snowball. However, have you stopped to wonder how snowflakes are made? Become a snowflake scientist by reading these fun facts!

Photo via Shutterstock

Frozen rain is called sleet. That is when the temperature is so cold the liquid turns to ice as it falls. Snowflakes or snow crystals form when the water vapor turns into a solid without becoming a liquid first. Snow forms at freezing temperatures, 32 degrees or colder.

All snowflakes are hexagons, which are six-sided shapes. This is because it is the most efficient way for the water molecules to arrange themselves. (We also see this efficient hexagon arrangement in bee and wasp hives.)

You may have heard no two snowflakes are ever alike. While impossible to test, it is most likely true. That is because the average snowflake contains a quintillion molecules joined together. A quintillion is a 1 with 18 zeros after it: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000. It would take you almost 159 years to count that high, if you counted day and night. For identical snowflakes to exist, that many molecules would have to join together in exactly the same way.

You have probably also observed that there are different types of snow and snowflakes. You may have your own descriptions. Is it fluffy? Good packing snow? Or tiny little pellets? The shape and size of a snowflake depends on the temperature and the amount of humidity in the air.

Snowflakes can be shaped like plates, columns or needles.

  • Stellar dendrites are the picture perfect plate-like snowflakes that pop into your head if you hear the word snowflake. (Stellar means relating to stars. Dendrite means branch-like.)

  • Columns and needles fall like tiny little wisps on your clothing. Columns may be hollow at each end. Needles are just really skinny columns.

  • Capped columns form when the temperature gets colder closer to the Earth’s surface. First, the columns form and then the plates attach to each end.

  • Twelve-branched snowflakes form when the two six-sided plates collide in midair.

  • Diamond dust crystals are the tiniest snowflakes. They are no wider than a human hair and occur in the coldest temperatures.

Want to learn more? Discover snowflakes through the experts! Wilson Bentley is the father of snowflake photography. Kenneth Libbrecht is the modern day snowflake expert. You can find stunning images and more amazing snowflake facts by either author at your local library.