Capturing snowflakes for science

Michelle and Anikin Allen take photos of snowflakes for Stories in the Snow. | Katherine E. Hill

When I was a kid, I remember being told that no two snowflakes are the same. Snowflakes form when cold water droplets freeze onto particles of dust. Each snowflake has a unique crystalline structure and this structure tells a story about the atmospheric condition, like temperature and humidity, when the snowflake was formed. These snowflake stories can help scientists better understand the climate.

Watch a video on how Stories in the Snow works 

To capture the story of the climate of the Tahoe-Reno area, the Desert Research Institute has developed the Stories in the Snow program. The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a nonprofit environmental research lab for the higher education system of Nevada.

The Stories in the Snow kit. | Katherine E. Hill

Through Stories in the Snow, DRI’s goal is to collect scientific information about the region’s climate. They also aim to promote student interest in art, science, math and geometry. Stories in the Snow kits provide students with the tools to take photographs of snowflakes and share them with DRI scientists.

Each Story in the Snow kit includes a Citizen Science case, macro lens (magnifying lens), thermometer, compass and snowflake crystal capture card. Using the macro lens on a Smartphone camera, participants can take photos of snowflakes and send them to DRI through the free Citizen Science app.

Using the macro lens to photograph snowflakes. | Luke Allen

The Citizen Science app also includes platforms for reporting your observations on algae, local species, water quality and beach conditions in Tahoe.

Being a science nerd myself, I was intrigued when I heard about the Stories in the Snow project. What a great way to enjoy the snow while teaching my son, Anikin, a little something about science. So, we ordered a kit, downloaded the app and waited for the snow to fall.

Michelle and Anikin Allen submit their observations on the app. | Katherine E. Hill

After anxiously waiting for a few weeks, we finally got our opportunity to use the kit. Anikin grabs the kit and dumps the contents on our birchen table. I remind him that we have to be careful with the macro lens as we check out our new scientific tools.

My husband, Luke, puts the macro lens over his phone’s camera lens, places the snowflake crystal capture card in the falling snow and takes a picture. He also takes a picture of our surroundings and the current conditions as indicated by the instructions in the kit.

Luke texts the images to me and as I pull them up, I marvel at the beauty and complexity of the crystals captured in great detail by the macro lens. I open the Citizen Science app; I click on the Stories in the Snow selection and follow the prompts to upload the photos. I tell Anikin we are now officially citizen scientists and we are helping other scientists learn more about the natural world.

We do the experiment several more times over the next couple of weeks as we get hit with round after round of winter weather. Anikin and I decide we will try to take photos of snowflakes whenever we have the chance and buy more kits to give to our friends.

Stories in the Snow kits can be ordered online for $25 each but rely on community support and donations to supply the kits for free to schools. | dri.edu/stories-in-the-snow