U of U Researcher Gives a New Perspective to the Average Snowflake

Apr 10, 2013

A University of Utah researcher is taking pictures of snowflakes in a way that’s never been done before and the results could help forecasters better predict the weather.

If you’ve ever seen a picture of a snowflake it probably looked a lot like the paper cut-outs made every winter by thousands of first and second graders across the country: unique, but perfectly symmetrical and flat. But according to Tim Garrett, an atmospheric science professor at the U who helped develop a new way to photograph snowflakes, that image is a lie.

“Such symmetry is extremely rare in nature," he says. "The reality is that snowflakes are falling through the sky for a long time and they get completely beat up along the way.”

Garrett says the reason most pictures of snowflakes are so perfect is because they’re taken on glass slides and not in their natural environment. But thanks to modern technology and his partner, engineer Cale Fallgatter, Garrett is able to autonomously take thousands of 3-D pictures of snowflakes untouched while they’re still falling. The camera also tracks the snowflake’s speed. All this information will then be used to create better weather forecasting models. Garrett says they’ve already discovered that the size and shape of snowflakes doesn’t change fall speeds as much as previously thought.

“If that’s the case, than that means that we might be able to simplify weather models and come up with something that is not only more accurate but more simple.”

The project currently has two multi-angled cameras located at the Alta ski resort that have been taking pictures for the last two years.

MASC Showcase (Several Images of Snowflakes)

Live Camera from Alta