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Published April 2005 | public
Journal Article Open

The physics of snow crystals


We examine the physical mechanisms governing the formation of snow crystals, treating this problem as a case study of the dynamics of crystal growth from the vapour phase. Particular attention is given to the basic theoretical underpinnings of the subject, especially the interplay of particle diffusion, heat diffusion and surface attachment kinetics during crystal growth, as well as growth instabilities that have important effects on snow crystal development. The first part of this review focuses on understanding the dramatic variations seen in snow crystal morphology as a function of temperature, a mystery that has remained largely unsolved since its discovery 75 years ago. To this end we examine the growth of simple hexagonal ice prisms in considerable detail, comparing crystal growth theory with laboratory measurements of growth rates under a broad range of conditions. This turns out to be a surprisingly rich problem, which ultimately originates from the unusual molecular structure of the ice surface and its sensitive dependence on temperature. With new clues from precision measurements of attachment kinetics, we are now just beginning to understand these structural changes at the ice surface and how they affect the crystal growth process. We also touch upon the mostly unexplored topic of how dilute chemical impurities can greatly alter the growth of snow crystals. The second part of this review examines pattern formation in snow crystals, with special emphasis on the growth of snow crystal dendrites. Again we treat this as a case study of the more general problem of dendritic growth during diffusion-limited solidification. Since snow crystals grow from the vapour, we can apply dendrite theory in the simplified slow-growth limit where attachment kinetics dominates over capillarity in selecting the tip velocity. Although faceting is quite pronounced in these structures, many aspects of the formation of snow crystal dendrites are fairly well described using a theoretical treatment that does not explicitly incorporate faceting. We also describe electrically modified ice dendrite growth, which produces some novel needle-like structures.

Additional Information

© 2005 IOP Publishing Ltd. Received 16 December 2004, in final form 10 January 2005, Published 8 March 2005.


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