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Snowflakes and Snow

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Christine
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I have been reading Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Some of you may be familiar with her more recent book, Braiding Sweetgrass. In Gathering Moss, she reminisces about the sense of wonder when, as an elementary student, she first looked at a snowflake through a magnifying glass. This winter, it looks like we're going to have plenty of opportunities to take a closer look at some snowflakes.

Snow is an interesting phenomenon: As a water droplet freezes, it forms a hexagonal lattice that resembles a stop sign, but of course with six sides instead of eight. The ice crystal may continue to grow if water vapor around it continues to condense and freeze on the surface. Eventually, it makes a snowflake.

When was the last time you took a good look at a snowflake, with or without the aid of a magnifying glass? Most of us grew up being told that no two snowflakes are identical. But scientists have discovered there are around 30 basic shapes to them. Differences in the shape and size of a snowflake are influenced by factors such as variations in temperature and humidity.

Snow is a part of life for people living in higher latitudes. In English, we pretty much just call it "snow." However, the Inuit have words for several types of snow, such as drifted snow (akelrorak), hard crusty snow (sillik), packed snow (aniu), snow that can be broken through (mauya), light snow deep enough for walking (katiksugnik), and soft snow covering an opening in an ice flow (mitailak). For the Inuit, being able to understand and communicate differences in snow is apparently much more important than it is for us.

Make a point to re-familiarize yourself with snow this winter. As elementary school kids, I suspect that many of us went outdoors, black construction paper in hand, with our teacher to observe snowflakes. That likely elicited a sense of wonder and awe back then. It still could. So, do it again! Better yet, take a child outdoors and show them.

And while you are out there, do like Lucy and Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas and try to catch a few snowflakes on your tongue.

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of “Natural North Dakota” and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005 he has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for North Dakota’s newest newspaper, the Lake Metigoshe Mirror. His columns also appear under “The Naturalist” in several other weekly newspapers across North Dakota.
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