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For as long as humans have inhabited the Earth we have been both fascinated and frustrated by snow, ice and adverse weather conditions. With the invention of the microscope, the tiny mysterious crystals of ice have been brought into focus as stunningly beautiful...and still quite mysterious.
Thanks to the efforts, imaginations and talents of artic explorers and scientists, the mystery of the snowflake and ice crystal formation is becoming, well, less mysterious with each passing day. Snow crystal classification is important for determining snow conditions. For instance, very heavy snow can cause roofs of houses and buildings to cave in, make tree limbs snap and break power lines.
Ski resorts and other winter vacation spots depend upon heavy snowfall and blizzards to keep their ski slopes packed full of good, soft, skiable snow. When they don't get enough snow some resorts make their own snow with snow-making machines.
Snowstorms develop when warm, moist air collides with cold air. Blizzards are heavy falling snow storms that come with high winds that blow the snow so hard sometimes you can't see anything around you.
Blizzards are very dangerous snow conditions for people driving cars or trucks or flying in airplanes. Crystal classification helps predict such adverse conditions.
The scientists and explorers have all contributed toward our collective knowledge of snow conditions.
Earliest documented evidence for exploration of snow shapes and formation:
"Flowers of plants and trees are in general five-pointed. However, flowers of snow, which are called ying, are always six-pointed."
"The reason why snowflakes are six-pointed is because they are only half-frozen rain (xian) (i.e. water) split open by violent winds, and so they must be six-pointed. If one throws a lump of mud on the ground it will splash into a radiating, angular petal-like form. Now 6 is a yin number; and gypsum also is six-pointed with sharp prismatic angular edges. Everything is due to the number inherent in nature. "
"Snow is the ultimate (state) of yin and completely possesses the number of Water (i.e. 6). Every snow-flake is six-pointed. Frost and snow are due to the condensation of rain and dew. Water is is generatd by Metal. A surplus of qi reveals the Mother (i.e. Metal). Hence frost and snow are all white."
In 1951 the International Commission on Snow and Ice created a classification system to identify the seven basic forms of snow crystals. This chart included results and data from Snowflake Bentley and other early ice explorers.
In 1966, snow scientists, Magono and Lee, conducted field work on weather conditions, moisture and temperature and developed their own snowflake class charts.
Modern day snow scientist, Ken Libbrecht continues to contribute to the advancement of snow studies with his published charts of snowflake classifications and related important scientific discoveries.
View a screen shot of the Woodcut by Olaus Magnus taken from an article by F. Eijgenraam NRC Handelsblad (14 Feb. 1991) (on page 8 of a very large pdf file)
Source: Earliest Mentions: Li, Qi and Shu: An Introduction to Science and Civilization in China (Dover Science Books).