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.
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.