The Heft of a Snowflake | WYPR

The Heft of a Snowflake

Mar 4, 2014


The image most people have of a snowflake.

There’s a good chance you’ve shoveled snow in the past couple of days.  It may have felt heavy…because of the amount of water in that snow.  How much is there?  Figuring that out can be complicated...but it helps if you have a high-powered electron microscope. 

When Eric Erbe was at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center here in Maryland, he made a breakthrough in calculating the amount of water that can be released by different kinds of snow cover. He did it with an electron microscope, frozen to more than 150 degrees centigrade below zero. And along the way, he got some of the most amazing photographs ever taken of snowflakes.  

One satellite that may measure water on earth is the Global Precipitation Measurement (or GPM) Core satellite, which was launched from Japan on Thursday, February 27.  The satellite was built at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.   Here's a link to more information about the mission from NASA.   

We're posting a couple of these images, but you can see more here.  All images credit: USDA Microscopy Unit, Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, Eric Erbe and Bill Wergin

The side plane is an example of irregular crystals which include broken crystal fragments and abnormal growth features.