This is a type of snowflake that I have never photographed before. If you’ve been following my exhaustive work with the subject over the years, you know that doesn’t come up often. View large!
Purely stellar crystals have crossed my path a number of times, with straight branches leading out from a simple center. This snowflake deviates from the ordinary in two ways: stellar tips, and very unusual side-branching.
The Stellar tips are a wonderful and somewhat common occurrence, when a snowflake falls from its cloud of creation through lower levels of temperature and humidity in the way to Earth. Often times we see a shift in growth patterns when this happens, presenting “rapid” growth on the tips of a snowflake due to higher humidity. It doesn’t last long as the snowflake falls, just long enough to have an impact on the outer edges of the crystal. These trident-like tips took minutes to form, if that.
The real surprise here is the incredibly broad and sometimes offset side-branches. These would be identified as "crossed plates” under warmer temperatures, and I have many images of that phenomenon… but here they seem to be growing slowly from branches at temperatures a few degrees colder. It doesn’t make sense. “Crossed plates” usually grow in multiple planes – spreading out on the Z axis as well. We don’t see that here, but these side-branches have the same iconic long edges in parallel to the main branch. The standard definitions for snowflake physics don’t give me answers here, and I’ve looked through a number of texts to try and identify this. I can’t find an example that looks similar to this.
I’m excited by this fact, and even though it might not be the most beautiful snowflake I’ve photographed, the mystery makes it special.
There’s no doubt that visual, it’s a simple snowflake. Measuring roughly 2-3mm in diameter it’s on the smaller side, making it a challenging subject to fill the frame with. These kind of magnifications are usually aligned with microscope use, but I push limits and can fill the frame with the smallest snowflakes in the field, hand held. Very recently I’ve photographed a snowflake using a 16x compound microscope optic that worked wonderfully, but it was the most difficult lens to use handheld that I’ve ever experienced. Not impossible, but very close to it. That image will be coming up soon in this series!
Snowflakes will forever have a mystery for me. No matter how many of them I photograph I always find something new if I look close enough. This “stellar crossed plate dendrite” is a perfect example. If I spent another decade with the subject, each year I would come up with new and surprising images. There are more surprises to come, I can promise you!
For a deeper delve into the science and creation of snowflakes, check out my book Sky Crystals: https://www.skycrystals.ca/book/ - you’ll find a full photographic tutorial alongside the “physics in simple terms” that define how a snowflake comes to be. Worth the read for any photographer or naturalist!