Anatomy of a Snowflake: Science, art and a little magic

During Alaska’s long winters, I love to photograph snowflakes but thanks to global warming, the last two years have been a bust. So when we arrived at our friends house in Anchorage on December 10, 2015, I was cautiously hopeful.

I got to work setting up my gear on their back deck. As before, I placed the “snowflake camera” on top of two milk crates. Everything else–glass microscope slides, air blower, and paintbrushes for lifting individual flakes–was arranged on a wooden stool off to the side. Then I enclosed the laboratory inside a portable outhouse tent. For the next five days I lived in polar fleece jackets, insulated pants, bunny boots and my favorite purple knit hat.

snowflake, photograph, real snowflake

Anatomy of a snowflake: Science, art and a little magic. Photo and illustration by Marion Owen

All the while, the National Weather Service promised blizzards and snow showers. I prayed for temperatures between 5 to 12 degrees F, ideal for the formation of stellar dendrites, those classic-shaped snowflakes. Cloudy and warm. Most of the snow crystals falling on my black sampling boards were coated with frozen droplets of rime. I call them warts.

My efforts weren’t a total bust though: In five days of standing outside, eyeing the sky, checking the forecast, drinking honey-laced coffee, and snacking on trail mix, I managed to photograph one… good… snowflake.

Back at home, in front of the computer, I found myself staring at this solitary snowflake, as if admiring a precious stone. A dashed line here, a dot there; valleys and highways. I looked some more and started to see worlds within worlds.

Was it worth it? Spending five days in an outhouse tent? I thought about photographers who’d waited weeks or months for the perfect light, or the right animal to show up, only to have their goals fizzle. I can’t complain.

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2 Responses to Anatomy of a Snowflake: Science, art and a little magic

  1. Linda says:

    You are amazing.

  2. Eva says:

    Amazing, indeed : )

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