No two snowflakes are alike: the science behind snow

Snowflakes on the car window in Northbrook, Ill., Sunday, March 9, 2014. The National Weather Service has gauged this season’s chills, in part, by noting the number of days with subzero temperatures from the start of November through the end of March. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

TONAWANDA, N.Y. (WIVB) —We’ve all heard that no two snowflakes are alike and if you’ve ever been outside in a snow storm, you may have noticed they are all unique in shape and size.

Chief Meteorologist Todd Santos says, “There are about 35 different types of snowflakes, from the flakes that are a stereotypical flake that we call a dendrite. Or the type that are little tubes and columns. Some of them are little tiny ice pellets, some of them are clumps of other flakes.”

But many wonder why they are all so different. The temperature plays a big role.

Santos said, “In really cold temperatures, even though there is a high variation of what you can end up with snowflake wise, it tends to be lighter or more crystal like snow, versus when temperatures are low enough that it is just above freezing, you end up with heavier kind of sticky snow.”

And the different kind of snow that falls doesn’t only impact how much you get, it changes how the snow gets cleaned up and how roads get treated.

Tom Jones, General Crew Chief at the Town of Tonawanda Highway Department shared this, “For light fluffy snow, we’re using liquids now. It creates a barrier so we don’t get snow pack.”

The liquid Jones is talking about is a mix of molasses and magnesium chloride. It’s an agriculturally safe treatment that is in its first years of use, but already helping the Tonawanda highway department tremendously.

Jones says, “It seems to work great. We started out using it on our mains and it did its job. We didn’t have the hard packed surface. We were able to plow and it scraped.”

With heavy wet snow, the liquid doesn’t help as much.

He said, “You have to reach a certain speed to push that snow off the street, but it does create havoc for the resident.”

But Jones and his crew say one or the other is not harder to deal with for them, just different. And like a lot of other Western New Yorkers he feels no snow is the best snow!

Jones said,”We prepare for the worst and hope for nothing!”