The Last Bite
By Sharon Harrison
They gleam and sparkle, they come in pretty and intricate designs, they appear in a variety of different shapes and sizes, they are complex and fascinating, no two are alike, and they are available in only one colour. Made up of between two and 200 separate crystals and around 180 billion molecules of water, snowflakes—or more correctly, snow crystals—are generally hexagonal in shape (although not always necessarily symmetrical), and contrary to popular belief, they are not white in colour. Snowflakes are translucent but not transparent, and only appear as white due to the way light reflects and diffuses upon the ice crystals’ many sides. Stellar dendrites, hollow columns, triangular crystals, twelve-branched stars and arrowhead twins are among the many names given to snowflake patterns.
Around the world, a variety of languages, regional variations and local dialects ensure there are many different words meaning snow. In France, snow is neige, the Spanish use nieve, and the Russians say снег. Italians use la neve, Schnee is used by Germans and the Icelandic word for snow is snjór. Much has been documented about the number of words for snow especially in Canada where the list of names is pegged at 400. The Inuit claim to have 100 different words for snow including matsaaruti and pukak, and Icelanders have 46 words at their disposal, including hundslappadrífa, skæðadrífa and Él. Of course, most names are simply extensions of names, a slight variation or a description of snow, and the whole exercise has become a rather humorous endeavour.
Beginning life high in the atmosphere, snowflakes fall at a speed of between 1.6 to 6.4 kilometres per hour, taking on average about an hour to reach the ground, growing larger and larger as they descend. The beautiful miniature creations measure roughly one to 10 millimetres wide, but their size can vary. The largest snowflake ever recorded in the world, according to Guinness World Records, was seen in Montana, US in January 1887, measuring 38 centimetres wide and 20 centimetres thick. The world’s largest snowman on the other hand, built in February 2008 in Maine, US, stood 122 feet, one inch high and was actually a snow woman named Olympia. Named after then Maine Senator Olympia Snowe (for real), the snowman took over a month to construct and weighed in at about six tons, towering over the small town of Bethel.
We throw snowballs, make snowmen (or snow people), stare into the magic of a snow globe, we wear snow suits and snow boots, and winter would not be same without a fierce snowstorm. And although it cannot be proven due to the many variables and so many snowflakes, it is generally accepted that no two snowflakes are alike. Known as the world’s snowflake expert, Wilson Bentley, a farmer from Jericho, Vermont, US, dubbed The Snowflake Man, spent his life studying snowflakes, taking photographs and writing many articles where he became a recognized authority on the topic. And should you be afraid of snow (such a thing does exist), you would have a condition known as chionophobia, where the word originates from the Greek chion meaning snow and the word phobos meaning fear.