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A multitude of reasons make sure no snowflakes are the same

SUN-GAZETTE FILE Two of the Bases Loaded statues at the corner of Market and Third Streets in Williamsport are covered in snow following a 2018 storm.

Due to the pandemic, Mary Alice and I have been staying home. However, last week, we needed to go food shopping.

Before we reached the grocery store, we stopped at the doughnut shop to go through the drive-thru window. While sitting in the truck and eating our doughnuts, the snowflakes began to blanket the windshield. Mary Alice, who loves snow, mentioned that it is absurd to believe that no two snowflakes are alike.

I’m sure everyone has heard the old saying that no two snowflakes are alike. However, with all those flakes falling to Earth and blanketing the ground every year, for eons, can this really be true?

Scientists have never found a law of nature which prohibits two snowflakes from being identical. Each snowflake contains approximately 180 million water molecules coming together in such a random way and under such a variety of conditions that observing two identical snowflakes is extremely unlikely.

While snowflakes are falling, they are continually being changed by hitting other snowflakes on the way down, by the wind breaking off part of fragile snowflakes, by a sudden jar when snowflakes are hitting the ground, and by snowflakes falling on top of another. A lot of air is trapped inside the ice crystals making up a snow flake, which is the reason snowflakes are extremely good insulators. It has been recorded that ground covered with two feet of snow was 50 degrees warmer than the air immediately above the snow pack. So, when talking about a blanket of snow, we really mean a blanket. Have you ever noticed there is an eerie quietness when snow is falling?

PHOTO PROVIDED The football field in Montgomery is illuminated during an April snow storm.

The shape of a snowflake might seem random at first; however, each flake forms according to a series of simple physical interactions, starting when six water molecules slow down and settle into order with each other, freezing into a crystal. The crystal begins as a tiny speck of dust (or pollen) which catches water vapor out of the air, eventually forming a hexagon, which is the simplest of snowflake shapes, known as diamond dust. Then, randomness takes over. The snowflake’s arms extend outward from the hexagon as water molecules land.

Differences in temperature and humidity can give rise to an infinite number of snowflake shapes. In the rare case of two flakes appearing identical at the microscopic level, they still differ from each other at the atomic level. Each snowflake contains about 180 million water molecules coming together in random ways and under a variety of conditions, making it extremely unlikely to observe two identical snowflakes.

That’s because about one in 3,000 water molecules in a snowflake contain a variant of the ordinary hydrogen molecule known as deuterium, a heavy hydrogen, consisting of one proton and one neutron. Deuterium comes from the Greek word deuteros, meaning second.

These deuterium atoms, which are scattered across the millions of molecules in the flakes, make it very unlikely any could possibly fall in the exact same pattern. The possibility is so infinitesimally small that we may as well call it zero. The number of possible arrangements of the water molecules in a snowflake is such a large number that it dwarfs the number of atoms in the universe many, many times over. Somewhere, a supercomputer is weeping just thinking about having to calculate a number that large.

A snowflake is insignificant; a flake crushed between one’s fingers can be reduced to a drop of water. However, when a multitude of these tiny flakes fall together, they can halt traffic, close schools, crush buildings, topple trees and generally bring our lives to a standstill.

SUN-GAZETTE FILE Two people sled down a hill near South Williamsport High School during a snow storm earlier this year. There are a multitude of scientific reasons no two snowflakes are alike.

Snow is white because of the many, many tiny reflective surfaces formed on the crystal particles, with air spaces trapped between these particles; and when the sun appears, the snow reflects the sun’s rays, making the snow a dazzling white.

Each snowflake is unique. Now, that you’ve learned the hard science behind the soft white stuff, perhaps you’ll appreciate the next snow fall.

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