Discover the beautiful, overlooked world of snowflakes

Marion Owen
This is probably one of my favorite snowflakes from the weekend. The soft hues, contrast and regal-ness. Time seems to stand still while I do this kind of work. I take naps, graze a little and photograph through the wee hours of the night and day.
Marion Owen / Marion Owen PhotographySnowflakesSnow crystals are made of ice, which is clear and colorless. I like to illuminate crystals with colored LED lights from below. The snowflake then acts like a complex lens that refracts the various colors in different directions. In this case, I must have had the northern lights on my mind, since we've recently enjoyed some fabulous displays in Kodiak.
Marion Owen
Marion Owen / Marion Owen PhotographySnowflakesWhen side branches are allowed to grow rapidly the result is a fernlike stellar dendrite, the largest snowflakes. This snow crystal was so big, over 1/4-inch, that I couldn't get it all in one frame. Next time I'll know to take multiple shots and stitch the frames together.
Marion Owen
Marion Owen / Marion Owen PhotographySnowflakesThis snowflake is unusual in many ways. For one thing, it's born of at least two plates, visible at the center, and grew at different rates.
Marion Owen
Marion Owen / Marion Owen PhotographySnowflakesDendrite means "tree like", so stellar dendrite snow crystals have branches and side branches. This is the most popular and recognized snow crystal type, sometimes growing to large and extravagant crystals in conditions of high humidity.
Marion Owen
Marion Owen / Marion Owen PhotographySnowflakes, in their tumbleweed journey to earth, often connect with fellow passengers. Rather than trying to separate them with my paintbrush, I decided to photograph them together.
Marion Owen
Marion Owen / Marion Owen PhotographySnowflakesThe center "eye" in this split star is the connecting column which joins two partial, or split crystals. Here's the theory: The two plates start out symmetrical, but as soon as one edges ahead, it starves the other of water vapor and retards or alters its growth. The asymmetrical results can be quite beautiful.
Marion Owen
Marion Owen / Marion Owen PhotographySnowflakes It was a magic weekend of working inside my portable outhouse tent.
Marion Owen
Marion Owen / Marion Owen PhotographySnowflakesThe father of snowflake photography, "Snowflake Bentley" (Wilson A. Bentley), often looked for familiar shapes and patterns within the center plate of snow crystals. Milk bottles, mittens, and flowers, as seen here.
Marion Owen

When a snowflake lands on your sleeve, it's the end of a 20-minute tumbleweed journey through clouds. But its touchdown is not the end of the story. Grab a hand lens or magnifying glass and discover the Lilliputian world of snowflake watching, an easy, inexpensive hobby and a simple pleasure for all ages.

The life of a snowflake is a struggle for perfection and competition among fellow flakes. Contrary to popular belief, snowflakes are not frozen raindrops. They are born in clouds, pretty much out of thin air. Clouds form when water vapor condenses around tiny specks of dust or debris, much as a pearl forms around a grain of sand in an oyster. Once the water droplet freezes, ice condenses directly on its surface, and the snowflake begins to grow. Soon a hexagonal prism develops; arms sprout at the corners and plates grow on the arms.

Part of the fun of snowflake watching is trying to figure out how the different crystals grew into their various final shapes. If the tips are rounded, for example, humidity was high, allowing the arm to grow rapidly. If the tips are more angular and flat, that tells you the crystal fell through a cloud pocket of lower humidity, which slows the growth rate. And what about those random squiggles and wormy shapes you see all over the snowflake? These are bubbles, pockets of air trapped inside the crystal.

As a snowflake spins through the atmosphere, changes in temperature and humidity also define its shape. For example, the range between negative five and 15 degrees Fahrenheit is the ideal temperature for spawning the classic six-sided stellar dendrites (dendrite means "treelike"). Below negative five degrees, water saturation decreases and another classification of snow crystals appears: simple columns and plates.

While the six arms of a snowflake travel together, they grow independently. And many things can happen along the way to spoil a snowflake's perfect symmetry. In fact, the quintessential well-formed snowflake is quite rare. I've seen snowflakes shaped like teapots, hands, daisies and birds in flight.

Lopsided growth is caused by a variety of conditions, including structure defects and midair collisions with other crystals. If an arm begins to grow faster than its brethren, it outpaces them by "stealing" water vapor droplets that would otherwise add to their size. It's a dog-eat-dog world up there.

Sometimes, though, a snowflake's original identity is masked by small ice particles called rime. These warty cloud droplets collide with the snow crystals and freeze onto their surfaces, usually as the flake passes through a foggy patch in a cloud.

Whether you own a magnifying glass or a 35 mm digital camera, don't pass up a snowfall -- and get ready. Find yourself a scarf, fuzzy mitten or fleece jacket. Night, day, it doesn't matter. In the glow of a porch light or headlamp, when snowflakes appear, get into position under a roof awning. Then extend your apparel out in the falling snow, long enough to gather a few flakes. It's snow time -- have fun!

The world is full of beautiful things we overlook, with snowflakes near the top of the list. Snowflake watching is an outdoor adventure that will have you searching for treasure and can give you a refreshing, childlike appreciation of the natural world.

Marion Owen lives on Kodiak Island. You can see more of her award-winning snowflake images at www.marionowen


Daily News correspondent