Ever wonder how snowflakes form and why they have so many different shapes?

What You Need To Know

  • A snowflake is really an ice crystal

  • Snowflakes form into many different shapes that depend on air temperature and humidity levels

  • Due to a water molecule's properties, an ice crystal freezes into a six-sided snowflake

Snowflakes come in a variety of shapes and sizes and no two snowflakes are exactly the same. To be more accurate, a snowflake is really an ice crystal. When one thinks of snowflakes, it usually is a cluster of ice crystals that are stuck together, forming a larger flake. This is especially true when temperatures are near freezing or 32 degrees.

Ice crystals are simply water droplets that freeze on contact with dust particles in the atmosphere. These ice crystals develop into intricate, beautiful shapes. These shapes depend on how cold the sub-freezing air is and how much humidity or moisture is present in the air where they form.

Below is a chart that explains the different types of ice crystals. Temperatures are colder from left to right and moisture increases from bottom to top.

Kenneth Libbrecht/California Institute of Technology

The type of snowflake most people commonly think of is known as a dendrite. This shape generally has six points or spokes radiating out from the center that can resemble a flower-like structure. Their delicate beauty is often stunning.

Snowflakes form into two general categories: plates and columns. However, as one can see from the chart above, there are several shapes within the two categories. Those include solid or thin plates, needles, prisms and, of course, dendrites.

Generally speaking, the warmer and more moist the air is, the more complex the ice crystal is as it freezes. Here are some examples of how detailed these ice crystals can be.