Forget Sledding, Try A Snowflake Safari Winter weather means more than skiing and snowmen. Bullet rosettes, stellar plates and capped columns are just a few of the crystal varieties commonly found in snowstorms. Science Friday asked Kenneth Libbrecht, physicist at Caltech and snowflake expert, for guidance on snowflake hunting.
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Forget Sledding, Try A Snowflake Safari

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Forget Sledding, Try A Snowflake Safari

Forget Sledding, Try A Snowflake Safari

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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I'm Ira Flatow. It's SCIENCE FRIDAY.

And joining me now is Flora Lichtman. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi, Ira. Happy New Year.

FLATOW: Happy New Year. Do we have a happy New Year Video Pick of the Week?

LICHTMAN: Yes. It's very seasonal this week. Nice and light for New Year's Day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: It's about a wintertime activity that I had never considered. So winter storm comes, you know, we all think of sledding and snowmen and skiing. But have you ever considered going on a snowflake safari?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Do I need a Jeep?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Do I need a lot of hooks to grab wild animals?

LICHTMAN: A magnifying glass will do it, it turns out. It turns out there are, like, 35 categories of snow crystals...


LICHTMAN: ...that you can see in your backyard, you know, with very simple equipment. And we actually tracked a - we talked to a snowflake expert.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: A physicist, Ken Libbrecht at Caltech who is chairman of the physics department there, but just loves snowflakes.

FLATOW: That's his hobby.

LICHTMAN: It's his hobby, and he spent a lot of time going all over the world, from Japan to the Arctic circle, looking for snowflakes and photographing them.

FLATOW: So he actually catalogs snowflakes.

LICHTMAN: He catalogs snowflakes.

FLATOW: And he showed you his catalog of snowflakes?

LICHTMAN: Yes, he shared some of his beautiful images. They're really gorgeous. They were taken under a microscope, and he sort of jerry-rigged a camera with it.


LICHTMAN: And you can see them in the video on our site.

FLATOW:, Video Pick of the Week on the left side there.


FLATOW: Yeah. And so did he teach you how you can do this yourself? How you can go on this snowflake safari?

LICHTMAN: Yeah. I mean, you know, I think beginners might just literally start with a magnifying glass, and you can test to see if your glass is good enough by looking at back of a penny. And if you can see Abe Lincoln sitting in the chair, then that's good enough to see some of the bigger flakes. The smaller flakes are gonna be tougher to see.

And one thing that I thought was really interesting is that different conditions breed different crystals. So you're sort of more likely to see, you know, a stellar plate at some temperatures than you are at others.

FLATOW: And he said - in your video, he said there was an ideal temperature, right, for the formation of a snowflake.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. There are two sort of peak snowflake temperatures. I think it's right below freezing and then five degrees Fahrenheit, also.

FLATOW: Wow. And I was just struck not only by how beautiful some of the snowflakes were - they're gorgeous - but how ugly some of them are.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. I mean, this is an interesting thing. He said most of the snowflakes you see aren't these beautiful, six-sided shopping mall, he calls them, snowflakes.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: They're just globs, you know?

FLATOW: Just globs of, like, broken crystals or things. They're - I guess -yeah.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. It's just sort of looks like ice. And actually fake snow, too, is sort of as ugly down to the - on the microscopic level. It also doesn't -isn't beautiful snowflakes like are produced in the clouds.

FLATOW: How do you keep them from melting long enough so you can take a picture?

LICHTMAN: That's a great question. It is very hard to get the picture done because the lights from the microscope melt it quickly. You have, like, a one-minute window or something before you can - before it melts on you. So there's no way to preserve - I don't think a good way to preserve your flake.

FLATOW: So this - is this best done outside then, in the wild?

LICHTMAN: Yeah. He has - his equipment is a traveling - it's a traveling microscope camera. And he said that the hardest part is really getting it through airport security.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I can see the conversation now. What do you do with this? I take pictures of snowflakes.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, exactly.

FLATOW: Would you step over to the side here and show us your...


FLATOW: Wait a minute. So this is something that is on our Video Pick of the Week. And if you want to go out and go on a snowflake safari, you can have your own.

LICHTMAN: Yes. You can hang around. And one more little peg for this video, the coolest footage that he provided were the - was this sort of time lapse of growing snowflakes in the lab. And it's really...

FLATOW: Wow. It is cool.

LICHTMAN: It's beautiful.

FLATOW: It's cool. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Flora Lichtman with our Video Pick of the Week up at, along with all our other videos.

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