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Be prepared for snowflake watching

Steve Roark Tri-State Outside

January 2, 2014

Many like me enjoy watching it snow, as the slow motion quiet of falling flakes provides a peaceful, serene view.


A single snowfall offers billions of exquisite ice sculptures that are short-lived, mostly unnoticed, and worth a closer look. In his book, “Snowflake,” Kenneth Libbrecht discusses how to observe snow up close.


Snowflake watching is similar to bird watching. Both are easy outdoor recreations focused on observing nature, and each requires only a minor investment in equipment. For snowflakes all you need is an inexpensive magnifying glass and warm clothing.


A parked car is an excellent snowflake observatory. The windshield is smooth and about the right height, the slope of the glass makes for comfortable viewing, and old snowflakes can easily be brushed aside to make room for freshly fallen ones. When the weather is warmer, a piece of black cardboard or a coat sleeve of insulating fleece works well.


Whatever collecting surface you prefer, it must be cold. If the surface is warmer than the air, captured snowflakes will quickly degrade. Body heat from the hands or a misplaced breath can ruin the flakes, so not only must you protect yourself from the cold, you must protect the cold from you.


After several snowflake watching experiences, you will discover that each snowfall has its own personality. Some storms create great numbers of small, plate-like crystals. Others produce only columnar forms that look like pencils. The character of the crystals often changes during the course of a single snowfall.


When it’s fairly warm the watching may not be good, as the crystals can melt a bit in flight, or collide and stick together in gloppy clumps before hitting the ground. But on occasion a snowfall will bring spectacular stellar crystals that fall lazily on your sleeve as minute but magnificent ice flowers.


Because of the endless variety of shapes offered by each snow event, it’s best to be prepared to take a look whenever one occurs.


So consider carrying a magnifying glass whenever conditions are favorable for snow. The handiest one to carry is a small, fold-up pocket magnifier, also called a hand lens, tucked in your coat pocket.


On a day when the crystals are falling well you will be rewarded for your preparedness. You may even attract a crowd of spectators, waiting for a turn to use your lens. Remember, joy is often in the little things of life.


Steve Roark is the Area Forester in Tazewell, Tenn. for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.