Snow crystals form when tiny supercooled cloud droplets (about 10 Î¼m in diameter) freeze. These droplets are able to remain liquid at temperatures lower than âˆ’18 Â°C (0 Â°F), because to freeze, a few molecules in the droplet need to get together by chance to form an arrangement similar to that in an ice lattice; then the droplet freezes around this “nucleus.” Experiments show that this “homogeneous” nucleation of cloud droplets only occurs at temperatures lower than âˆ’35 Â°C (âˆ’31 Â°F). In warmer clouds an aerosol particle or “ice nucleus” must be present in (or in contact with) the droplet to act as a nucleus. Our understanding of what particles make efficient ice nuclei is poor â€” what we do know is they are very rare compared to that cloud condensation nuclei on which liquid droplets form. Clays, desert dust and biological particles may be effective, although to what extent is unclear. Artificial nuclei include particles of silver iodide and dry ice, and these are used to stimulate precipitation in cloud seeding.
Once a droplet has frozen, it grows in the supersaturated environment, which is one where air is saturated with respect to ice when the temperature is below the freezing point. The droplet then grows by diffusion of water molecules in the air (vapor) onto the ice crystal surface where they are collected. Because water droplets are so much more numerous than the ice crystals due to their sheer abundance, the crystals are able to grow to hundreds of micrometers or millimeters in size at the expense of the water droplets. This process is known as the Wegner-Bergeron-Findeison process. The corresponding depletion of water vapor causes the droplets to evaporate, meaning that the ice crystals grow at the droplets’ expense. These large crystals are an efficient source of precipitation, since they fall through the atmosphere due to their mass, and may collide and stick together in clusters, or aggregates. These aggregates are snowflakes, and are usually the type of ice particle that falls to the ground. Guinness World Records list the worldâ€™s largest snowflakes as those of January 1887 at Fort Keogh, Montana; allegedly one measured 38 cm (15 inches) wide.
The exact details of the sticking mechanism remain controversial. Possibilities include mechanical interlocking, sintering, electrostatic attraction as well as the existence of a “sticky” liquid-like layer on the crystal surface. The individual ice crystals often have hexagonal symmetry. Although the ice is clear, scattering of light by the crystal facets and hollows/imperfections mean that the crystals often appear white in color due to diffuse reflection of the whole spectrum of light by the small ice particles.