Are All Snowflakes Unique? Myth or Fact?

snowflakes unique

There are so many beautiful snowflakes.

The statement that I want to look into today is, are all snowflakes unique?  The truth is that there may be 35 general patterns, but at the smallest level no two are alike.  Well, almost.

Have you ever looked closely at snowflakes once they landed on your glove or hand before they melted?  They are amazing to look at, both beautiful and complex.  I’ve spent some fun times catching them in my mouth as they gently drifted down to earth or catching them on my glove.  Despite my incredulity, it is true that no two snowflakes are alike (almost).

How Are Snowflakes Formed?

The first thing to understand when trying to look at this question is how snowflakes are formed.  All snowflakes start off as tiny bits of dust in clouds. Water vapor freezes onto those tiny bits of dust and form ice crystals.

Then you have a super small ice crystal floating in a cloud full of water droplets.  Gradually, the water droplets attach to the ice crystal and freeze, forming a larger and larger ice crystal (the beginning of a snowflake).

The temperature and amount of moisture in the cloud will determine the shape of the ice crystal/snowflake.  As the snowflake falls to the ground it will pass through different clouds.  These will all add to and change the individual snowflakes that eventually make it to the ground.

snowflakes unique

The 8 main and 35 sub categories of snowflakes.  Graphic from Compound Interest via creative commons.

What Are The General Patterns Of Snowflakes?

There are scientists who spend their time painstakingly studying and classifying the different types of snowflakes.  They have been able to group the overall shapes into one of 8 main categories with 35 subcategories.  These of course can be broken down into smaller and smaller groups, the differences between each being smaller and smaller.

snowflakes uniqueAre All Snowflakes Unique?

OK, so now you understand how snowflakes are formed and the general patterns that snowflakes come in.  So, to the big question – are all snowflakes unique?

At a broad level, all snowflakes fall into one of the 35 general patterns and may look similar.  However, at the microscopic level it is a very different story.

Scientists estimate that a single snowflake is made up of about 10 to the 18th water molecules (that is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 water molecules!).  Thus, for two snowflakes to be exactly alike they would have to have all of those individuals water molecules aligned exactly the same.

Since there are so many snowflakes falling every year it is theoretically possible that two may be exactly the same.  But, it would take many people working nonstop for their whole lives to possibly find those two. Thus, while it is theoretically possible that two snowflakes are exactly alike, the odds of it happening are very small.

Therefore, I will say that yes, for practical purposes all snowflakes are unique at the microscopic level.

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