Monday, January 28, 2013

A Celebrated Snow Job

While Texas and Alaska compete for the tallest tales, Montana softly fluttered its way into the winter-time record books with a larger-than-life tale from 126 years ago today.

On January 28, 1887, the largest snowflakes ever reported were observed at Ft. Keogh, near present day Miles City. According to the report, a freak storm produced snowflakes the size of pancakes, 15" across and 7" thick. A nearby rancher described the mega-flakes as "bigger than milk pans." And in spite of the lack of any photographs or corroborating evidence, this report remains in the Guinness World Records.

U.S. Army Band and Guard Mount wearing buffalo coats at Ft. Keogh,
Montana, during the winter of 1880. (L.A. Huffman photograph)
Snowflakes are aggregations of hundreds of individual ice crystals. Physics doesn't preclude mega-snowflakes, but winds and collisions with other flakes would take heavy tolls on fragile, Frisbee-size flakes. While normal size snowflakes flutter to the ground at an average speed of 66.9" (1.7 m) per second, mega-flakes reportedly fall at twice this speed.

Now, most of your normal size snowflakes (from, oh let's just say Texas or Alaska) are less than 0.5" across. But there are scattered reports from "reliable observers" of extraordinary snowflakes estimated from 2" to 6" wide.

Weather officials in Berlin, January 1915, reported on a storm that produced snowflakes that were 4" across and shaped like round dishes with up-turned lips. And a September 1970 snowstorm in Laramie, Wyoming, reportedly produced 3" mega-flakes. In all likelihood, larger than normal snowflakes probably fall every day in winter, somewhere on Earth, but there just aren't many people out in these storms with rulers and cameras.

The tiny building blocks of snowflakes - those individual ice crystals - are mostly less than 0.25" wide. But ice crystals in nature have been reported up to 0.5" wide, and grown in the lab up to a whopping 1" wide. A crystal's shape is determined by the micro-climate it passes through while forming in the clouds and falling to the ground. No two ice crystals are exactly alike because no two take the exact same path.

Modern-day Montana also made history of sorts, just one year ago today. That report of world-record snowflakes, from 1877, was celebrated with the only Google doodle that (as far as I know) celebrates Montana.

The giant search engine uses its animated artwork to celebrate an eclectic assortment of historical events. On this day last year, Google users watched a giant snowflake settle onto a winter field where a cow grazed peacefully. By clicking on the doodle, millions of people around the globe were directed to one of Montana's little-known - and totally unsubstantiated - moments in history.

Google doodle from January 28, 2012