Winter: the Season of Snow

It may not be snowing now but it is January in New England so any day can bring a winter wonderland.

By Kristen Swanberg, Senior Director of Education

Winter may bring cold temperatures but it also brings the magic of snow – like confetti falling from the sky! Are you fascinated with snow? Have you ever wondered about how a snowflake is made or how animals live under the snow? Let’s become snow scientists together.

How a Snowflake is Born
snowtypes-Audubon-Jan-2010Snow begins as a speck of dust or salt that rises into the sky.  As it reaches the clouds, water molecules start to attach themselves to the dust particle. This droplet grows as more and more water molecules connect. When the droplet cools, it freezes into an ice crystal. This crystal grows six branches with arms. Over time, it grows heavier and begins to fall as more water vapor condenses onto it. Continued condensation changes the crystal’s shape as it falls from the clouds into warmer air where many clump together to form snowflakes.

Wow! Who would have thought that snow starts with a piece of dust?

Each Snowflake is Unique (Download PDF)

Just like fingerprints, no two snowflakes are alike.  How do we know this?  Well, scientists have been studying snow crystals for many, many years. In fact, they have developed eighty different categories for classifying them.  Here are the seven most common types. Each snowflake forms in different temperatures and conditions.

1. Hexagonal Plates are the most common form of ice crystal. They are a six-sided flat crystal with designs on their surfaces.
2. Hexagonal Columns are six-sided cylinders with either flat or pointed ends.  They are formed in very cold, high altitudes. These snow crystals are responsible for those beautiful halos you see around a winter moon.
3. Capped Columns are hexagonal columns with hexagonal plates on either end.
4. Needles are long, slender six-sided columns that look like tiny bolts of lightning.
5. Stellar Crystals are the classic star-shaped flakes with six branches; they have simple to elaborate designs radiating from the center.
6. Spatial Dendrites are feathery stellar crystals with other branches projecting from each of the six original branches.
7. Irregular Crystals is the catch-all category for all other shapes.

Get outside this winter and be a snow scientist!

Here are some fun activities to try outside this winter.

Catching a Snowflake
You can catch a snowflake by simply sticking out your tongue or holding out your hand, but your warm body will melt it quickly. To keep it from melting, place a dark piece of fabric or paper in your freezer. After about 15 minutes, the paper is cold enough to catch snowflakes.  Now for the fun part! Go outside and watch the snowflakes fall on the dark surface. Examine them with a magnifying lens. What types of crystals are falling in your backyard?

Make a Snow Gauge
Did you ever wonder how much snow fell in your neighborhood? You can make your own snow gauge to find out. Tape a ruler to the inside of an empty coffee can. At the start of the next snow storm, put the container outside in an open area away from trees and buildings. When the storm ends, check the ruler to find out how much new snow has fallen. Is it the same as the weather report? You can do this for each storm and track the total accumulation for the season.

Maple Snowcream
You’ll need help from an adult for this delicious activity.
Start by pouring half a cup of real maple syrup into a saucepan. Cook over low heat until it just begins to boil. Meanwhile, collect a large bowl of freshly fallen clean snow. Spoon a generous amount of snow into a mixing bowl. Very gradually add the syrup, stirring constantly. As the snow melts, add more snow and stir. After all the syrup has been added, continue adding spoonfuls of snow and toss until the syrup is evenly distributed and has frozen. The snowcream should have the consistency of shaved ice or sherbet. Spoon into individual serving bowls and enjoy!

Snow Art
To get creative in the snow, fill a spray bottle with water and food coloring of choice. Get outside and start spraying a masterpiece. Remember to switch up the colors!

Situated on a 28-acre wildlife refuge in Bristol, Rhode Island, Audubon’s Environmental Education Center is open year-round and provides walking trails, nature programs, and exhibits for the whole family to discover.  For more information and a complete calendar of events, visit www.asri.org or call (401) 245-7500.

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Category: activities: outdoor, kids, preschool, seasonal, tweens


Audubon Society of Rhode Island

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Senior Director of Education Audubon Environmental Education Center

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