See what I did there? If you don’t yet see how the title would be a “Before and After” Jeopardy clue, read on!

Today brings this region of New England to its third official snow day in three weeks. Schools and many businesses are closed yet again while the skies gently dump tiny crystals of frozen water vapor across all exposed surfaces for well over 24-hours. This storm should give us another foot or more on top of our existing baselayer of about two feet of snow. But beyond the classic snow day reflections involving hot chocolate, blankets, movies, books, knitting, or sledding, let us dive into some of the less popular wonders of such stellar snow days…

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Yesterday as the snow took a brief break from falling, I took to the forest for a cross-country ski before travel became too precarious. The trees were still frosted heavily from the last storm and preparing to take on more. In the midst of our forest ski, the flakes began to fall yet again, and I stopped to listen to the characteristic quiet of a snow storm.

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I noticed a small beech sapling, still clinging desperately to its past photosynthesizers, with pockets of snow glued impossibly within the curled, yellow leaves.

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Upon closer observation, a few of these flakes stood alone at the top of the pile boldly displaying their uniqueness to a curious eye. As many of us heard as children, much like fingerprints, no two snowflakes are alike. But why is that? There is some fascinating science at play. Depending on the exact water vapor density and temperature in the atmosphere, ice crystals will form and cling to each other in a range of ways and will even continue forming as they tumble towards the ground through various layers of changing vapor density and temperatures. Knowing a little about the shape of a snowflake can help us understand some of the conditions in the atmosphere above us. Yesterday’s snowstorm began with “stellar dendrites,” a crowd-pleaser, for sure–perfect snowy stars that formed in an atmosphere with excess water vapor of about 200mg/m3 and temperatures of about -15C.

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Such snowflake knowledge and a curious eye can make for a stellar snow day, indeed!

Ice crystals on the mudroom window with the snowy picnic table in the background
Ice crystals on the mudroom window with the snowy picnic table in the background

To expand your snowflake knowledge, check out Caltech’s Guide to Snowflakes.