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How Snowflakes Are Formed

Updated on October 18, 2014
Hexagonal snow crystal
Hexagonal snow crystal

Image by Kenneth Libbrecht from

Do You Know How Snowflakes Are Made?

If you've lived for much time in a colder climate, as I have, then undoubtedly you've been outside during a snowfall.

But have you ever paused to looked closely at the individual snowflakes after they land?

If so, you'll have noticed that their appearance can be different during different snowfalls. Sometimes snow comes down as beautiful tiny, lacy six-sided crystals, and sometimes it comes down in needle-like shapes, columnar shapes, or most commonly as irregular shapes. Often snow will come down as clumps of snow crystals -- that's when we see the big puffy snow flakes.

Snowflakes start out as ice crystals that have formed around small bits of dust or dirt in the atmosphere.

The shapes that they take depend on the weather conditions, such as temperature, humidity (how much water vapor is in the air), wind speed, and how long it takes for them to fall to the ground.

Regular six sided snowflakes
Regular six sided snowflakes

What is a Snow Crystal? What is a Snowflake?

A snow crystal is a single crystal of ice, as shown in the examples on this page. The crystal may not necessarily be six-sided, but it could be a needle-shaped crystal, or columnar crystal, or a twelve-sided crystal, or it could be quite irregular in shape.

A snowflake is a more general name that can refer to one snow crystal, or a few crystals stuck together, or a large group of snow crystals grouped together as a snowflake puffball. There may be up to a couple hundred snow crystals in one snowflake.

The three images above are the more familiar six-sided snow crystals that we see in drawings and decorative designs. Note the relative simplicity of a couple of those. The four images below are also snow crystals but certainly not what we think of as the "picture book" snowflake. The last one is of irregular snow crystals, which are the most common kind. They're usually clumped together and don't show much symmetry.

The beautiful six-sided flakes are less common, but they're what are most commonly represented because their beauty inspires us.

Non-hexagonal snow crystals
Non-hexagonal snow crystals

Image Credit of Snow Crystals

The snow crystal photos shown above are by Kenneth Libbrecht at and are shared here according to his copyright information page.

A Great Guidebook - by Ken Libbrecht

This is a handy, pocket-sized book that offers tips for snowflake watchers, including what type of snowflakes to expect during certain weather conditions, and suggestions for capturing snowflakes. It includes Libbrecht's own beautiful snowflake micro-photographs (some are shown on this page).

It's a comprehensive and entertaining guide that describes the many types of snowflakes, and what can be learned from their patterns.

Ken Libbrecht's Field Guide to Snowflakes
Ken Libbrecht's Field Guide to Snowflakes

Snowflakes are "temporary works of art, tiny crystalline masterpieces".

Snow cloud
Snow cloud

Snowflakes Begin in Clouds

More Information and Facts

Snowflakes form in clouds when the temperature is too cold to form raindrops. Clouds consist of water vapor.

A very tiny ice crystal, or snow crystal, forms from water vapor condensing around a speck of dust or dirt in the atmosphere. As the snow crystal grows and gets heavier, it starts to fall earthward.

Along the way down it will encounter many different environmental conditions -- it may grow more quickly or more slowly, or form different shapes depending on the conditions it goes through. It may also collide and combine with other snow crystals, forming bigger snowflakes.

Image of snow cloud by Jackie, CC 2.0

Kenneth Libbrecht, Snowflake Researcher and Photographer

This is a good interview with Caltech physicist, Kenneth Libbrecht, who is considered the world's preeminent snowflake photographer and researcher. The video talks about his research and shows how he photographs snow crystals. The best areas for photographing is in northern Ontario and around the Great Lakes, including Houghton, Michigan. It's cold work! The best snow crystals are found when the temperatures are 5 - 10 degrees Fahrenheit (-15 to -12 degrees Celsius).

"Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand."

~ Henry David Thoreau

Water molecule
Water molecule

What Causes Six-Sided Snowflakes to Form?

The six-sided shape comes from the configuration of water molecules, and how they interact with each other in a solid state (ice, snow).

A water molecule (such as above) is made up of two Hydrogen atoms and one Oxygen atom (H2O).

In a solid state, water molecules form weak bonds (hydrogen bonds) with each other that pull them into a symmetrical hexagonal (6-fold) lattice shape. This is why you won't see symmetrical snowflakes that are 4-sided, or 5- or 7-sided. You might see snowflakes that are 12-sided, since 12 is a multiple of 6.

Ice lattice image fromThe Interactive Library: Interactive Molecules -- Ice Structure.

But Are They Perfectly Symmetrical?

Some are pretty close!

It does look like the snowflake below is perfectly symmetrical, doesn't it? But look very closely at the six arms, and you'll notice that each arm is just a little different than the others. It's like the Spot the Difference picture puzzles we looked at as children (and maybe still do!) -- we're shown a couple of drawings that at first glance look the same, but on closer inspection have tiny differences.

Some snow crystals, such as this one, are very nearly visually symmetrical, while others are much more noticeably unsymmetrical.

Snowflake print by Kenneth Libbrecht
Snowflake print by Kenneth Libbrecht
Needle shaped snow crystal
Needle shaped snow crystal

Image of Needle-shaped snow crystal, above, and morphology diagram below, by Kenneth Libbrecht

What Determines the Shape and Pattern of a Snowflake / Snow Crystal?

The size and shape of a snowflake is determined in part by the temperature, humidity, and air currents in the zones that it falls through. Its formation and growth is dynamic and complex because it will fall through many different zones with different conditions before it lands. In some zones it might sprout dendrites (feathery branches), and in others it might start to melt, only to branch and grow again in different zones.

Snowflakes that spin like a top are more symmetrical than those that fall sideways. The amount of dust or dirt in the flake will affect its shape too.

Temperature is a big influence of the different shapes. At warmer temperatures, the shapes grow more slowly and are usually smoother. At colder temperatures the shapes can be more intricate. But humidity also plays a big part in the growth and shape of a snowflake. Higher humidity allows for more complex patterns.

Forms can include:

  • Star-shaped
  • Star-shaped with dentrites (feathery branches)
  • Columnar-shaped
  • Columnar-shaped with capped ends
  • Needle-shaped
  • Plate-shaped
  • Irregular

...and other shapes

Create a snowflake
Create a snowflake

Image is my creation from Make-a-Flake

Make Your Own Flake

This is an online version of the folded paper snowflakes that you may have made in the past. No little paper scraps to clean up!

Click Make-a-Flake

First, you'll be taken to a page that says "Flash 6 is required to use Make-a-Flake".

If you don't have the Flash 6 plugin, you'll be able to download it at this time.

Click on that page "If you are sure you have the Flash 6 plugin, click here"

A window will open with a few pretty snowflakes floating by.

Click "Make Your Own Snowflake" (or "Visit the Gallery" if you want to see what other people have created.)

A virtual piece of paper will be folded for you. Your mouse controls the scissors. The red dot on the scissors will turn green when the scissors are positioned where you can cut (start from any edge of the triangle). Click the mouse and move the mouse to cut. You can save your flake, or download it or email it.

Be creative! Since there's no paper to waste, you can experiment with different shapes.

Ken Libbrecht's Field Guide to Snowflakes
Ken Libbrecht's Field Guide to Snowflakes

From a product description: "A handy, pocket-sized book that offers tips for intrepid snowflake hunters, including what type of snowflakes to expect during certain weather conditions, and opportune ways for capturing them."


Product Description

A cute giftbook packed with glorious color microphotography of real snow crystals by Dr. Snow-Caltech physicist Kenneth Libbrecht. His photos of snowflakes have appeared in National Geographic, the New York Times, and on Martha Stewart's TV show, as well as numerous other places. This thick "cube" book is packed with a blizzard's worth of amazing images as well as literary quotes on the beauty of snow.


Did You Know?

An average raindrop falls about 600 feet a minute.

An average snowflake falls about 11 feet a minute.

Another Photographer of Snowflakes

William Bentley, "The Snowflake Man", became the first person to photograph a single snow crystal in 1885. He went on to photograph over 5000 more snow crystals.

Read more at the Official Snowflake Bentley Web Site.

To Learn More....

The best site I've found to learn more about snow crystals and snowflakes is, by physicist and researcher Kenneth Libbrecht.

And you'll find galleries of beautiful snow crystals there!

Did you learn something new about snow crystal and snowflake formation?

Drop me a note -- I'd Love to Hear From You!

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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Amazing site! wow! I plan to use this in the classroom!

    • lulin123 profile image


      5 years ago

      Wow I've never thought about snowflakes in that much detail before!

    • uneasywriter lm profile image

      uneasywriter lm 

      5 years ago

      Very interesting lens!

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      That's something I've always wanted to know! Thanks for sharing!


    • profile image


      5 years ago

      This is a fascinating lens. I find snowflakes fascinating and so beautiful. Don't like slush much though. I have snow too infrequently here in the Pacific Northwest, but it is beautiful when it comes.

    • captainj88 profile image

      Leah J. Hileman 

      5 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

      I just popped back to visit this lens and leave an extra blessing for you.

    • profile image

      sybil watson 

      5 years ago

      Yes, I did learn quite a bit! It's so nice to read just a well-written, interesting lens.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      This is a fascinating article. I'm wondering why I didn't learn any of this in school growing up!

    • KateHonebrink profile image


      5 years ago

      What a fabulous article! Very well researched and written -- loved it!! Thanks for all the hard work you put into it - kudos on a great job!

    • JeffGilbert profile image


      5 years ago

      This is a very nice page about snowflakes. Very informative and great source of resources. Thanks for making a great lens!!

    • GrowthSpark profile image


      5 years ago

      I certainly learned a lot new, many thanks. It snowed a load here yesterday and I was just thinking about all the different kinds of snowflakes. Great info & pic, many thanks.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      What a well-researched lens! It is interesting to learn about the science behind snowflakes. I didn't know any of this info. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    • meditationhowto1 profile image


      5 years ago

      Amazing information and one of the most beautiful lenses I have seen, thank you!

    • SydneyH LM profile image

      SydneyH LM 

      5 years ago

      Excellent information! I enjoyed reading it.

    • capriht profile image


      5 years ago

      wow, excellent read...

    • makorip lm profile image

      makorip lm 

      5 years ago

      I love to watch it snow but finding the intricacies of the individual flakes is amazing. Good lens!

    • ItayaLightbourne profile image

      Itaya Lightbourne 

      5 years ago from Topeka, KS

      Wonderful article! I love snowflakes. :)

    • clkbm profile image


      5 years ago

      Great information of the formation of snow.

    • PippiDust profile image


      5 years ago

      Beautiful photos of snowflakes.

    • lewisgirl profile image


      5 years ago

      Love snowflakes. Great lens!

    • hungry-deer profile image


      5 years ago

      Wonderful, thanks for wonderful information :)

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Thanks for sharing How Snowflakes are Formed

    • BLouw profile image

      Barbara Walton 

      5 years ago from France

      What a nice, informative lens. I've just learned so much about snowflakes!

    • captainj88 profile image

      Leah J. Hileman 

      5 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

      Merry Christmas! I didn't know that snowflakes could be other than 6-sided. The images and scientific clues that you've shared here are beautiful.

    • Redneck Lady Luck profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 

      5 years ago from Canada

      Snowflakes really are beautiful and as it is the holiday season they are even more appealing. I love how you have included not only beautiful images of snowflakes but also give so much information on how they are formed. Powerful article.

    • siobhanryan profile image


      6 years ago

      What a unique and brilliant lens. What surprised me was the different speed of rain and snow as they fall.

    • theholidayplace profile image


      6 years ago

      Amazing how symmetric and beautiful snowflakes are

    • The-Darkness profile image


      6 years ago

      Snowflakes are truly beautiful, but hail is also very interesting, isn't it? Formed in a similar way, but tossed and turned and hardened into a frozen ball. I think meteorological events are quite prodigious.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 

      6 years ago from Ljubljana

      Even now, when we know the secrets of crystallization snowflakes still carry a lot of mystery.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I'm so glad that I found your lens. I asked myself that question too many times, but I always forgot about checking it on Google on how snowflakes are made. Well, now I took some time to read your article and thanks to you, I found my answer ;)

      Keep up the good work!

    • SciTechEditorDave profile image

      David Gardner 

      6 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area, California

      Nice! Congrats on a Squidoo masterpiece!

    • BenJacklin LM profile image

      BenJacklin LM 

      6 years ago


    • awesomedealz4u profile image


      6 years ago

      Very interesting!

    • kathysart profile image


      6 years ago

      I LUV making those snowflakes online.. too fun. Snowflakes just seem sooo UNREAL. I remember when I learned that snowflakes really do have all these amazing designs.. I was just totally awestruck.. so magnificent! Angel blessed lens for sure!!

    • Dimplefree profile image


      6 years ago

      Very interesting, so simple yet so complicated. but always beautiful.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      great lens thumbs up1

    • mimthemom profile image


      6 years ago

      Very educational lens! Thanks!

    • Nimsrules LM profile image

      Nirmal Shah 

      6 years ago from India

      Very informative, plus who doesn't love snow flakes :)

    • preetam91 lm profile image

      preetam91 lm 

      6 years ago

      Very informative

    • darciefrench lm profile image

      darciefrench lm 

      6 years ago

      Sounds like snowflakes are lazier than raindrops :)

    • profile image


      6 years ago


    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Great info on snowflakes

    • Beaddoodler profile image

      Jennie Hennesay 

      6 years ago from Lubbock TX

      Wonderful Lens! I like to make beaded snowflakes for Christmas ornaments and had a couple of pictures of the real snowflakes for inspiration, but I'd lost the URL to the website. Thanks for all this wonderful information and the beautiful pictures.

    • writerkath profile image


      6 years ago

      While I've always been fascinated by snowflakes, I truly hadn't given a lot of thought to the science behind their formation until I saw this lens! :) Blessed.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      You know your snowflakes! I learned a lot in reading this lens. The explanation of how the H2O jmolecules influence the crystal's shape was one of those "of course!" moments. Very interesting!

      Congratulations on the well deserved front page feature!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Very cool lens! I love the photos you included!

    • Image Girl profile image

      Image Girl 

      6 years ago

      Very nice lens! Great information! Beautifully presented.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      What a detailed and well presented story about interesting snowflake forming facts. Learned something new here and am so glad for it. Blessed by a squid angel :)

    • Alethia LM profile image

      Alethia LM 

      6 years ago

      Sometimes I think that if I look really really hard enough, I can see the shape of a snowflake on my glove before it melts away. I also think that clouds look like elephants squirting water in the air :)

    • Mistl profile image


      6 years ago

      Very comprehensive and very interesting! :)

    • samhunter78 profile image


      6 years ago

      Terrific lens! Very well thought out and presented, and of course informative!

    • KarenHC profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from U.S.

      Thanks, everyone, for all the nice comments! It certainly has been fun being on the "Monsterboard" these last few days :-)

    • Sara Krentz profile image

      Sara Krentz 

      6 years ago from USA

      Very interesting!

    • spider-girl profile image


      6 years ago

      Amazing lens!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Fantastic lens... amazing photos. Enjoyed this lens tremendously.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      snowflakes are amazingly beautiful, and thanks for the clarification, i used to think that snowflakes is always hexagonal in shape.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I have always been fascinated with the unique beauty of snowflakes and just learned how they are formed and am more fascinated now....they are wonders of nature for sure, like little jewel gifts to us. That is so interesting about the difference in rate of fall between a raindrop and a snowflake...another wonder! Congratulations on receiving front page honors on this gem! Blessed!

    • Zodiacimmortal profile image


      6 years ago from Yonkers, NY

      Cool lens (no puns intended) I've added it to my fave lenses lens

    • RomanaSwan profile image


      6 years ago

      Beautiful lens! Very educational!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Nice lens.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I absolutely LOVE snowflakes!!!! Thanks! This is a great lens! Blessed!

    • ofdifferentsorts profile image

      Paul Franciskato 

      6 years ago from Junction City, Kansas

      It's amazing that a frozen drop of water can form into an intricate and beautiful shape! I enjoyed the photo/music slideshow of snowflakes.

    • Julia Morais profile image

      Julia Morais 

      6 years ago

      I thought all snow flakes had six sides. Very informative lens. Thanks!

    • ernieplotter profile image


      6 years ago

      great lens! thanks for sharing!

    • lasertek lm profile image

      lasertek lm 

      6 years ago

      Interesting lens! Thanks for sharing.

    • BuddyBink profile image


      6 years ago

      Some of the beauty of winter. It always amazes me how lacy snowflakes can grow similar fingers. Thanks

    • MrsPotts profile image


      6 years ago

      So interesting and BEAUTIFUL pictures! Great lens :-D

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Very cool page. Nice lens!

    • armidabooks profile image


      6 years ago

      cool : )

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Nice page, I like it !

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I thought all snowflakes were uniform, I didn't know it had a lot to do with temperature and humidity too. It really is amazing how they occur in such symmetrical shapes.

    • RazzbarryBreeze profile image


      6 years ago

      Thanks for sharing . Nice work !

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Love snowflakes but never have the chance to observe it, i learned a lot from your lens, thank you so much.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      great lens i loved it

    • dpethealth lm profile image

      dpethealth lm 

      6 years ago

      Thank you for sharing. Nice overview of snowflakes

    • emmaklarkins profile image


      6 years ago

      Great info here, and very thorough! Thanks for sharing :)

    • flycatcherrr profile image


      6 years ago

      Congrats! Glad to see your lens was chosen for the "Snow Fun" showcase:

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Fascinating lens. We rarely see snow in Tallahassee. I learned a lot. Blessed.

    • mihgasper profile image

      Miha Gasper 

      6 years ago from Ljubljana, Slovenia, EU

      They are real little masterpieces of art, don't they? Don't like snow, but love snowflakes and enjoyed your lens!

    • ElizabethJeanAl profile image


      7 years ago

      It will be awhile before we see snowflakes again.

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 

      7 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      very interesting topic and well explained article.~blessed~

    • CruiseReady profile image


      7 years ago from East Central Florida

      I had to go to Indiana in winter a couple of years ago. It snowed... I kept looking closely at the snowflakes when they landed on the sleve of my black coat. It was amazing to this Floridian. So, this lens was VERY interesting to me.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I have a project to do and this site helped me! thnx squidoo ppl!

    • jackieb99 profile image


      7 years ago

      I learned so much! Thank you.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Snowflakes are what I am looking out at now here in Milwaukee -- and these appear mushy tonight -- wondrous, no matter what.

    • hotbrain profile image


      7 years ago from Tacoma, WA

      I never knew that there were so many different kinds of snowflakes! This is amazing and has my scientific curiosity peaked!

    • profile image

      Pete Schultz 

      7 years ago

      I can't resist this.....what a flaky lens! Really quite interesting, I didn't know there was so much knowledge and research on the formation of snow flakes. Nicely done.

    • dwnovacek profile image


      7 years ago

      Awesome lens - both informational and beautiful. Blessed by your Science neighborhood Squid Angel!

    • KarenHC profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from U.S.

      @anonymous: I like that image -- angels cutting out the snowflakes :-)

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 

      7 years ago from Canada

      Your lenses are excellent :)

      Best wishes


    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I thought this was very interesting to read about the snowflakes! I always thought as a kids that angels cut them out. They are so beautiful! Thank you!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      interesting information.....

    • kare2share profile image


      7 years ago

      Such an informative and interesting lens! It rarely snows in the area where I live, but I've always been fascinated by the wonder of snowflakes. I especially appreciate the way you've presented the science behind the formation of snowflakes along with the beautiful images. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • sheriangell profile image


      7 years ago

      From one who is not a snow lover, this was fascinating to read and beautiful to look at!

    • lovelylashes profile image


      7 years ago

      Simply outstanding! I loved reading this and learning a bit more about snowflakes. It was fun tapping my creative genius while making snowflakes, too!

    • RMKK-Marlene profile image


      7 years ago

      This is an exceptional lens! Informative and beautiful as well. I love Thoreau's quote, "Nature is full of genius..." I love the magical feeling I get while I'm watching the snow fall.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      As snow is dropping down in China's Southwest, it gives me a familiar feeling to read your snowflakes lens.

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 

      7 years ago from UK

      I thought I'd already seen as much snow as I could bear this winter... but you have given us both science and beauty here. Thanks for sharing your passion for snowflakes.

    • chocsie profile image


      7 years ago

      wow what an interesting topic! and a very informative lens too. keep up the great work!

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Just love snowflakes...when they fall, they create magic...and when snow crystallize on trees and the sun shines on them...they are just the most beautiful sight to behold.


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