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Visualized: How Snowflakes are Formed



Visualized: How Snowflakes are Formed

The Art of Snow

If you look at snow up close, you will probably notice that it is made up of thousands of tiny flakes with beautifully complex designs.

These snowflakes are actually ice crystals. They form in our atmosphere, high in the clouds, and transform along their journey to Earth thanks to different factors and forces.

We look at how snowflakes are formed, and what atmospheric conditions contribute to the beautiful intricacies we’ve come to know them for.

How to Build a Snowflake

The designs of snowflakes are actually products of a crystallization process that is controlled by the atmosphere.

Water vapor in the atmosphere latches onto a free-floating speck of pollen or dust and acts as a nucleator. This means that it can begin to add on (ie. nucleate) more water molecules and grow in size. When this happens at cold temperatures, water also freezes and crystallizes.

Despite the many unique styles of snowflakes, they all crystallize in the exact same shape—a hexagon. The reason for this has to do with how water behaves at the chemical level. At room temperature, water molecules flow randomly around each other, forming and breaking bonds endlessly.

When temperatures cool, however, they begin to lose kinetic energy and form more stable bonds. By 0°C, they reorient themselves into an energetically-efficient position, which happens to be a rigid, hexagonal configuration. This is frozen water, or ice.

All snowflakes nucleate and crystallize this way. As more water molecules nucleate to the infant snow crystal, they crystallize long arms and branching tendrils, forming unique, artistic designs.

How these designs materialize is simply a matter of water availability and temperature, a relationship best described in the Nakaya Diagram of Snowflakes.

The Nakaya Diagram of Snowflakes

In the 1930s, Japanese physicist Ukichiro Nakaya created the first artificial snowflakes and studied their growth as an analog for natural snow crystal formation. The Snow Crystal Morphology Diagram, or the Nakaya Diagram, is his handy chart that illustrates how snowflakes are formed.

The diagram illustrates the kinds of snowflakes that form via atmospheric temperature and humidity during a snow crystal’s fall to the ground.

Snowflake size and complexity depend on the humidity of the atmosphere. More water means larger, more intricate snowflakes.

Surprisingly, snowflakes cycle between two classes of growth (plates vs. columns) as temperatures decrease.

Close to its 100-year anniversary, this detail of the Nakaya diagram still puzzles researchers today. Many continue to theorize and demonstrate how this phenomenon may be possible.

Start the Same, Finish Different

You might be wondering how it is possible that no two snowflakes are identical if they all have a hexagonal inception and can form only columns or plates.

The answer lies in the dynamic nature of the atmosphere.

The atmosphere is constantly changing. As each second goes by, temperature, humidity, wind direction, and a number of other factors bombard a snow crystal as it falls to the ground.

Snow crystals are sensitive to the tiniest of these changes. Water vapor that is crystallizing responds to different exposures which ultimately make new patterns.

Since no two snowflakes travel in the exact same path at the exact same time, no two snowflakes will look the same. Same start, different endings.

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The Anthropocene: A New Epoch in the Earth’s History

We visualize Earth’s history through the geological timeline to reveal the planet’s many epochs, including the Anthropocene.



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The Anthropocene: A New Epoch in the Earth’s History

Over the course of Earth’s history, there have been dramatic shifts in the landscape, climate, and biodiversity of the planet. And it is all archived underground.

Layers of the planet’s crust carry evidence of pivotal moments that changed the face of the Earth, such as the ice age and asteroid hits. And scientists have recently defined the next major epoch using this geological time scale—the Anthropocene.

In this infographic we dig deep into the Earth’s geological timeline to reveal the planet’s shift from one epoch to another, and the specific events that separate them.

Understanding the Geological Timeline

The Earth’s geological history is divided into many distinct units, from eons to ages. The time span of each varies, since they’re dependent on major events like new species introduction, as well as how they fit into their parent units.

Geochronologic unitTime spanExample
EonSeveral hundred million years to two billion yearsPhanerozoic
EraTens to hundreds of millions of yearsCenozoic
PeriodMillions of years to tens of millions of yearsQuaternary
EpochHundreds of thousands of years to tens of millions of yearsHolocene
AgeThousands of years to millions of yearsMeghalayan

Note: Subepochs (between epochs and ages) have also been ratified for use in 2022, but are not yet clearly defined.

If we were to cut a mountain in half, we could notice layers representing these changing spans of time, marked by differences in chemical composition and accumulated sediment.

Some boundaries are so distinct and so widespread in the geologic record that they are known as “golden spikes.” Golden spikes can be climatic, magnetic, biological, or isotopic (chemical).

Earth’s Geological Timeline Leading Up to the Anthropocene

The Earth has gone through many epochs leading up to the modern Anthropocene.

These include epochs like the Early Devonian, which saw the dawn of the first early shell organisms 400 million years ago, and the three Jurassic epochs, which saw dinosaurs become the dominant terrestrial vertebrates.

Over the last 11,700 years, we have been living in the Holocene epoch, a relatively stable period that enabled human civilization to flourish. But after millennia of human activity, this epoch is quickly making way for the Anthropocene.

EpochIts start (MYA = Million Years Ago)
Anthropocene70 Years Ago
Holocene0.01 MYA
Pleistocene2.58 MYA
Pliocene5.33 MYA
Miocene23.04 MYA
Oligocene33.90 MYA
Eocene56.00 MYA
Paleocene66.00 MYA
Cretaceous145.0 MYA
Jurassic201.40 MYA
Triassic251.90 MYA
Lopingian259.50 MYA
Guadalupian273.00 MYA
Cisuralian300.00 MYA
Pennsylvanian323.40 MYA
Mississippian359.30 MYA
Devonian419.00 MYA
Silurian422.70 MYA
Ludlow426.70 MYA
Wenlock432.90 MYA
Llandovery443.10 MYA
Ordovician486.90 MYA
Furongian497.00 MYA
Miaolingian521.00 MYA
Terreneuvian538.80 MYA

The Anthropocene is distinguished by a myriad of imprints on the Earth including the proliferation of plastic particles and a noticeable increase in carbon dioxide levels in sediments.

A New Chapter in Earth’s History

The clearest identified marker of this geological time shift, and the chosen golden spike for the Anthropocene, is radioactive plutonium from nuclear testing in the 1950s.

The best example has been found in the sediment of Crawford Lake in Ontario, Canada. The lake has two distinct layers of water that never intermix, causing falling sediments to settle in distinct layers at its bed over time.

While the International Commission on Stratigraphy announced the naming of the new epoch in July 2023, Crawford Lake is still in the process of getting approved as the site that marks the new epoch. If selected, our planet will officially enter the Crawfordian Age of the Anthropocene.

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