There's no denying, there's something absolutely mesmerizing about snowflakes. We've all marveled at photos of snowflakes under the microscope and intricate snow crystals made in the lab and we've filled in you in on the chemistry behind those beautiful formations, but scientists at the University of Utah have developed a way to show us snowflakes like we haven't seen them before: in 3D.
The team, lead by atmospheric scientist Tim Garrett has developed a camera system called the Multi-Angle Snowflake Camera (MASC) capable of capturing 3D images of snowflakes as they fall from the sky. The system consists of three high-speed cameras triggered by infrared sensors that photograph snowflakes in mid-air at extremely fast exposures (up to 1/2,500th of a second). Multiple triggers along the snowflake's path measure fall speed and the high resolution images let the scientists measure the snowflakes themselves.
"You've probably seen gorgeous pictures of snowflakes that have been collected on glass slides and put under a microscope. These pictures, while beautiful, are pictures of snowflakes that are exceedingly rare,” said Garrett to TechNewsDaily. He explained that most snowflakes that fall from the sky are actually clumps of many flakes stuck together. Putting those onto a slide would destroy them, which is why we've never gotten to see them close up before.
Previously snowflake studies have been done one-by-one and by hand. A major study in the 1970s only measured a few thousand snowflakes, but the MASC can capture and measure tens of thousands of flakes in one night.
All this could lead to a better understanding of snowfall and improved weather predictions since scientists can now see what type of conditions produce what type of snowflakes.
Currently an MASC system is set up at the Alta Ski Area in Utah where it's connected to a live feed for scientists to log in and view the snow as it falls. The range of snowflake types has surprised Garrett.
"When people say no two snowflakes are alike, that is very true. They are dissimilar in ways that I did not imagine prior to starting this project. The range of possibilities is immense," Garrett said.
Garrett and his colleague Cale Fallgatter have formed a company called Fallgatter Technologies to sell the technology. The US Army has already purchased one to use for predicting avalanches.