Seattle is enjoying one of its all-too-rare episodes of snow—well, I’m enjoying it, at least. Upon leaving the house this morning to walk to work, I found the sidewalks lightly dusted with an interesting type of snow we in the biz call graupel.
Most snowflakes, the six-sided ones you probably think of when you think of “snowflake”, grow by the condensation of water vapor. The individual water molecules attach to the snowflake in an orderly fashion, like building a structure out of Legos, and you end up with a regular crystalline shape.
Sometimes, though, the snowflake will pass through a cloud of water droplets as it falls down to the ground. As it hits the snowflake, the whole water droplet will freeze almost instantly, retaining its rounded shape. The snowflake bounces around in the cloud of water droplets, accumulating more and more, and your orderly Lego structure starts to look like someone has been pelting it with spitballs. These frozen water droplets are called rime. When so much rime has accumulated that the underlying shape is no longer visible, the snowflake has become a pellet of graupel.
In the picture below (sorry for the questionable quality, it’s a cell phone camera) you can see quite a few snowflakes; I’ve circled one on the left that retains the crystalline snowflake shape, and one on the right that’s still clearly six-sided, but so covered in rime it looks like it’s wearing a fur coat. (My advisor called this a “textbook” rimed snowflake.) Elsewhere in the picture you can see a few pellets of shapeless graupel.
Incidentally, this also goes to show that you don’t need a microscope to appreciate snowflakes; your eyes will do just fine. I’ve found that a good method is to go out when the snow is falling and catch snowflakes on a fuzzy hat, either faux fur or knitted with especially fuzzy yarn; the snowflakes will be caught on the fibers, where they can be more easily examined without melting.