TechChasing snow twins: The near-impossible quest for identical snowflakes

Chasing snow twins: The near-impossible quest for identical snowflakes

Blizzard in Krakow
Blizzard in Krakow
Images source: © WP | Arkadiusz Grochot
7:57 PM EST, December 16, 2023

December, a month when snow increases significantly, often sparks interest in snow's unique formation. Considering the sheer volume of snow in the world, it's interesting to ponder the possibility of nature creating two identical ice crystals. According to IFL Science, referencing a discussion with Physics Professor Kenneth Libbrecht, the probability is practically non-existent.

What are snowflakes and how do they form?

These microscopic crystals create distinctive and unique patterns, varying from one to another based upon the conditions of temperature and humidity they form in. They form as water freezes directly from a gaseous state to a solid state, bypassing the liquid stage in the process.

It takes approximately 45 minutes for the largest snowflakes to form, states IFL Science. The weather conditions can drastically change during this time, which, even in the slightest way, shapes the final form of the crystals. The sheer number of possibilities for these changes suggests that snowflakes can take any form, differing in even the finest of details.

The genesis of a snowflake begins with a hexagonal solid—though it is not the only base form—that develops incrementally while symmetrically constructing unique structures around itself.

Could there be identical snowflakes and is it possible to find them?

Libbrecht mentions that no two snowflakes experience the same atmospheric conditions at the same time and place. Consequently, the subtle changes in humidity and temperature affecting the flakes are also never identical. This is due to the improbable event of two snowflakes being in the same place at the same time.

The process of snowflake formation
The process of snowflake formation© IFL Science

Upon close inspection, these tiny crystals may appear similar, Libbrecht adds. However, the similarity is far from identical. Large star-shaped crystals are inherently complex, deriving their complexity from the conditions in which they grow. A scientist can estimate the number of different ways a snowflake can form, but it's bound to be an astronomically high number.

Libbrecht equates the odds of creating two identical snow crystals to reshuffling a deck of cards. While it's impossible to fully assure that a deck of cards will never be arranged in the same order twice, the likelihood of that occurring is incredibly slim.

Equally important is the chance of finding two identical flakes. Though the probability of their creation is ridiculously low, one must also consider the tiny odds of locating these identical flakes outdoors. The probability essentially rounds down to zero, according to IFL Science. Two identical snowflakes will not come into being naturally, and even in the highly improbable event that they did, there would be no way to find both twin structures.

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