SALT LAKE CITY — Most people recognize snowflakes in their classic form, but some researchers with the University of Utah and a special camera have found that most snowflakes actually look much different.
"These snowflakes spend a lot of time in the sky undergoing all kinds of meteorological conditions for a long period of time," said Tim Garret, University of Utah Department of Atmospheric Sciences researcher. "And they end up having an incredible variety of shapes that almost defy imagination."
In the past, the only way to research or get photos of snowflakes was to look at them after reaching the ground. The trouble with that was their shapes weren't the same as when they were in the air.
Now there's a camera that changes all that. It's called the MASC: the Multi-Angle Snowflake Camera, invented by engineers at the U. This camera has multiple lenses and uses very high shutter speeds and very bright LEDs.
"So this is a big technological advance and I think the quality of the images is much higher than anything that's been available previously for snowflakes falling in free fall," Garret said. "And indeed we're seeing things that I don't think have ever been photographed before."
So this is a big technological advance and I think the quality of the images is much higher than anything that's been available previously for snowflakes falling in free fall. And indeed we're seeing things that I don't think have ever been photographed before.
–Tim Garrett, U of U researcher
Photo after photo reveals some of Mother Nature's secrets— different processes in the air create different kinds of flakes. Many flakes bump into tiny drops of water along the way down and this creates pellets, or grauple. Some snowflakes merge with other snowflakes. The sizes and types of flakes determine how fast they fall.
How is this useful info? When it snows outside, most people want to know how much snow is going to hit the driveway, or you want to know if it will be a gentle snow or a whiteout. If meteorologists could look at the radar and know what specific kinds of snowflakes are falling, it could improve snow forecasting. And everyone likes an accurate snow forecast!
Not only was the camera invented here, but it went to work in Utah as well at perhaps the best place on the planet to get snow: Utah's Alta ski resort.
"Management here has always been real supportive of scientific research, which makes us better as avalanche workers and really helps in the whole scientific community that deal with snow and avalanche problems, said Howie Howlett, Alta Avalanche Program.
This scientific research sparks all kinds of interest not just learning about forecasting, but now seeing up close why so many people enjoy this natural wonder.