The Impossibly Long Life of a Snowflake


It’s a simple act of nature.  A billion snowflakes drifting slowly earthward…sometimes rising, sometimes blown sideways…but always downward.  If they each made a sound like a bird, someone stepping out onto a frozen porch in the North Country of the Adirondacks would be deafened.  But each flake makes a sound only it can hear.

It all seems so simple…but it isn’t…not at all.

If a snowflake had a mind, it would have long minutes to think about where and how it would end its existence as a crystal.

Two Hydrogen atoms bond with an Oxygen atom.  That’s a water molecule.  You can do a great deal with one of these.  Boil it, freeze it, drink it, hydrate your body or pee it out.  It’s still H2O.  Nothing’s changed.

With the aid of the sun, the water molecule becomes agitated.  It evaporates and, defying gravity, ends up in the troposphere.  They find each other and cling to one another, like lovers often will.  A raindrop is formed.

It remains in the sky for an indeterminate length of time, but everything changes up there.  Nothing of the water that we see stays the same.  Sunsets come and go.  Sometimes there is a red sky in the morning.  The castles of cumulus clouds may take the shape of trees, mythical beasts, camels, people or…castles.  But, if you blink, it’s morphed into something else.  A cloud that looked to you like a rear molar can look like 3-masted schooner in 2.6 seconds.

But, something many people don’t realize is that every raindrop (and snowflake) has a nucleus.  Not like a living cell’s nucleus…but a microscopic kernel of something…maybe dust, maybe a Silver Oxide crystal, whatever.  The water molecule must have something to cling to…just like people.

If you catch a snowflake on your wrist and take it indoors, it will melt.  You would need a microscope to see whatever the condensation nuclei is.  And then you may have a hard time seeing it.  But, every falling raindrop has this tiny bit of something at its center.

Last night, over the North Country of the Adirondacks, trillions of these flakes fell.  Descending through the blackness that only a winter sky and a New Moon can provide.  In this world, there is no free choice (at least that we can discern), so the flakes can alight on anything.

If the snowflake falls directly onto the ground…its trip is over…for now.  When the melting of springtime comes its liquid water again and then its time to wait in a lake or pond.  Its waiting for the sun to start the process once again.

Nothing changes and everything changes.

In my front yard, some flakes have made me a fortunate man.  My visual world is made more beautiful by the flakes spending a day or two on a cedar branch or, finding just that one tiny surface to hold it in place, along with several million other flakes to make winter patterns that are so commonplace yet so sublimely awesome.

Funny how a stray twig or errant branch that would hit me in the face can become the bearer and framer of such an amazing art of nature.

Today, I stood knee-deep in the snow of what passes for our ‘lawn’.  I stepped close to a cedar branch.  I leaned forward to try to count the uncountable crystal flakes.  I got to ten and remembered that no two flakes could ever be exactly the same.  I didn’t want to count any twice so I backed away just as my breath began to melt tiny flecks of white.

It’s going to be -10 F tonight so the snow will be on the branches in the morning.  But soon a breeze will clear off the tiny cedar needles.  The sun will melt those that remained.

Everything will change.  But next week, it will all start over again.

Right now, as I write this, a water crystal is forming.  It’s just waiting for the Great Goddess of Nature to wave her hair or whisper a breeze that allows the cycle over my head to continue.




[Along our road with a forecast of -11 F]


One comment on “The Impossibly Long Life of a Snowflake

  1. I love the snow, its beautiful, bright and when it’s snowing it is so very, very quiet.


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