The Science of Snowflakes

Each snowflake falling from the sky is one of just 39 different shapes.

In the Northern Hemisphere at least, the idealized vision of Christmas involves snow.  While no one snowflake is exactly the same as another, at least on a molecular level, scientists have none-the-less devised a system of classification for the many types of crystals that snow can form.  This graphic shows the shapes and names of some of the groups of this classification.


The shapes they form are very dependent on temperature and humidity.  This diagram illustrates this fact:  simpler shapes are more common at low humidities, while more complex varieties of crystal are formed at high humidities.  We still don’t know the precise variables behind the formation of particular shapes, although researchers are continually working on theoretical equations to predict snowflake shapes.


The number of categories snow crystals can be categorized into has been increasing over the years.


The latest studies split the classification into three sub-levels: general, intermediate, and elementary.  The graphic featured here shows the 39 intermediate categories, which themselves can be grouped into 8 general categorizations.  Each of the intermediate categories have specific characteristics, which are:

  • Column crystals.
  • Plane crystals.
  • Combination of column & plane crystals.
  • Aggregation of snow crystals.
  • Rimed snow crystals.
  • Germs of ice crystals.
  • Irregular snow particles.
  • Other solid precipitation.


PDF Graphic:  Shapes-of-Snowflakes