The Chemistry of Snowflakes

Photography & Video Science
The Chemistry of Snowflakes


The American Chemical Society has a great two-minute video explaining the basic chemistry behind snowflake formation, including how each degree of temperature difference adds to the branches of the flake. Are no two snowflakes really alike? It depends on if we’re talking about big snowflakes or little ones.

YouTube player

On a side note, the incredible snowflake photo above is the work of master snowflake photographer Ken Libbrecht, author of The Art of the Snowflake: A Photographic Album and Ken Libbrecht’s Field Guide to Snowflakes, both treasured books in my little library. Geek out some more on snow and read more about his special photography rig.

11 thoughts on “The Chemistry of Snowflakes

  1. Terry Pold says:

    This is a mildly intereesting video. What really needs to be explained is why snow flakes display radial symmetry. How does one arm know what shape any other arm is creating. Shouldn’t each arm grow randonly?

    1. Conjecture says:

      Based on the information in the video, it sounds like the ice structures that form on each arm is based solely on the temperature. If the temperature is uniform across the surface of the snowflake, the six arms would develop identically. If two snowflakes were exposed to exactly the same temperature variations over their growth, they would be identical to each other as well. I wish I had a lot of money and time to spend growing snowflakes.

      1. Goli Mohammadi says:

        I believe you’re correct, Conjecture. Libbrecht has a great “Snow Crystal Primer” on his site with a helpful morphology diagram:

        And yes, I agree that growing snowflakes would be a fine and fascinating scientific undertaking!

  2. Karyn Traphagen (@kTraphagen) says:

    I love Kenneth Libbrecht’s work (& website). For those interested in easy DIY (Make-style!) snow crystal photography, you can do what I did. Use an inexpensive Easy-Macro lens (basically, a rubber band w a small lens) on any smartphone to get some pretty amazing snow crystal pics of your own. I just took some in Ithaca, NY, and posted them here:

    1. Goli Mohammadi says:

      Wow! That is so cool, Karyn! Your pictures turned out great. Thanks for sharing!

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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