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Watch This 3D Snowflake Model Melt Over and Over Again

It’s not only mesmerizing, it could help researchers predict the hazards of wet snow

This visualization is based on the first three-dimensional numerical model of melting snowflakes in the atmosphere, developed by scientist Jussi Leinonen of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Lauren Ward)
smithsonian.com

Scientists at NASA created what they claim to be the first 3D model of a melting snowflake—and the results are mesmerizing.

The visualization, however, is more than just a pretty picture. As a press release explains, the model can help researchers more easily pick out the signature of wet snow, which can pull down powerlines and break limbs from trees.

It's surprisingly difficult to map out the melting of a snowflake. As Phil Plait explains for SyFyWire, not only do the researchers have to take the physics of ice into account, but things like surface tension start to become important as the structure melts.

But Jussi Leinonen, scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion laboratory, decided to try to tackle the problem. "Nobody else was really doing it and I kind of had a good hunch that it could be done," he says in a NASA video.

The resulting snowflake is less than half an inch long and is made up of multiple ice crystals tangled together, as is common when the tiny flakes crash together as they float to the ground.

In the model, this muti-faceted flake swiftly progresses from crystalline to liquid phases, accurately incorporating previously observed steps of a melting flake. Water initially collects in the nooks and crannies of a snowflake's surface. Eventually these pockets all begin to merge to form a shell of liquid that encompasses the crystal, enveloping the core before fully turning to water, describes Devin Coldewey for TechCrunch.

The visualization could not only help provide insights into melting snow, but also rain. According to the NASA video, around 66 percent of rain actually begins as snow high in the Earth's atmosphere. As Plait explains, snow is highly reflective in radar scans, but little is known about the details of these bright regions. By developing accurate models of snow, scientists may be able to make more accurate weather predictions, helping to save money and limit damage.

Leinonen and his colleague Annakaisa von Lerber published the analysis in the Journal of Geophysical Research - Atmospheres.

This is not the first time researchers have studied snowflakes. Past researchers have been pretty creative to get at this complex melting process. For example, previous researchers have used spider webs to catch snowflakes and watch their melting behavior. But the new simulation is the closest scientists have reached to visualizing the melting process of snow.

As for research of the world’s frosty realm, there’s much more research coming soon. NASA is launching two new satellite missions this year that will help us get a better look at the Earth’s ice sheets, glaciers and sea ice.

About Julissa Treviño

Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist based in Texas. She has written for Columbia Journalism Review, BBC Future, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, CityLab and Pacific Standard.

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