So like Vancouver had a major dump of snow last week, which is just not west coast at all. Predictably, all hell broke loose, and UBC even experienced a campus wide power outage at one point. Anyway, whilst looking for some things for the FILTER, I came across a really cool website that looked at snowflake morphology, called snowcrystals.com
It's pretty amazing really, how convoluted the categories are - and all, of course, are dictated by the hexagonal lattice that water crystallizes at. Essentially, due to the polar "V" like structure of H2O, the most energetically favorable way of packing itself is in this six sided form.
From this, structures are formed in a symmetrical fashion because presumably congruent environmental conditions will exist on all six sides of this lattice. Therefore, when gaseous water becomes attached to this frozen crystalline base, it will do so in identical ways on each of the six sides. Hence, you get funky looking six sided things like these below.
How "conditions" dictate the type of snowflake produced is where the hardcore science comes into play. But to be honest, it doesn't seem like those specifics are worked out fully yet. However, what has been determined are the forms that do form under various conditions. In other words, there is data whereby the type of snowflake produced can be predicted based on the conditions available - it's just the "how does it do this?" that isn't clear.
Mind you, if you are into the hardcore physics behind all of this, you can cuddle up to this review paper, warmly titled "The Physics of Snowflakes" by Kenneth Libbrecht (this is also the dude who runs the website).
Still, a blog post wouldn't be complete without an excuse to self induce yourself into dizzyness and some serious eye strain. Luckily, (and thanks to a hat tip to inkycircus) this is easy with this topic because of some great snowflake electron microscopy stereograms from the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (although, you might have more fun telling your co-workers that they are actually "spot the difference" pictures).
Anyway, it's probably better to end this post, by simply commenting "Can't we humans do anything right?" Since a case in point is to look at man-made snow (it's, like, the ugliest thing you can imagine...)
Go check out snowcrystals.com. It rocks.