Snow Science

March 31, 2010

By Kevin Grove, Chemistry

Figure 1. From Kenneth G. Libbrecht

Have you ever taken a close look at the snow falling from the sky?  Not just a cursory glance – but a good, solid look.  Did you find intricate, six-sided beauty?  Were any two snowflakes exactly the same?

Snow is a magical medium for science, art, and sport to blend into one.  In the past three months, I have talked about snow, thought about snow, studied snow, and experienced all of its ephemeral qualities.  Writing about snow has been the most difficult.  Each time I attempt to start this blog post, something new comes up related to all things snowy, shifting my focus of the post. 

Initially, my intent was to talk about the scientific aspects of snow.  Liquid water droplets freezing on dust particles initiate the process.  Water chemistry – polar covalent bonding, hydrogen bonding, etc. determines the six-sided nature of the snowflake (see figure 2). 

Figure 2. Water molecules attaching to form hexagonal ice.  Chemistry in Context-McGraw-Hill.

After the initial crystallization, snow physics takes over building and defining the snowflake.  Temperature and humidity are the two key variables taking over as the snowflake builds (see figure 3).  Mass transfer (water vapor movement from the space around the flake to the flake), heat transfer (latent heat is given off during hydrogen bond formation), and attachment kinetics (the Lego effect where water molecules can only attach to the snowflake at specific locations) ultimately decide the final size, shape, and beauty of the snowflake.

Figure 3. Ukichiro Nakaya – 1954 from

Each time a snowflake moves into a different temperature and/or humidity during its formation, the physics change the building block process of the snowflake.  All snowflakes travel through many different temperature and humidity regions before landing on your jacket, ultimately leading to a very high probability that no two snowflakes are alike.  Take a relatively simple task of arranging 15 books on your bookshelf as an example to illustrate this concept.  With over one trillion ways to arrange the 15 books, you can imagine how it is highly probably – considering the extremely complex and variable nature of the building process – that no two snowflakes are alike.  Wilson Bentley first set out to prove the validity of the statement capturing over 5000 images of snowflakes.  Nicknamed the “snowflake man,” Bentley profoundly stated,  “Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated.  When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”

Figure 4. Wilson ‘snowflake’ Bentley photographing snowflakes.

On January 22, I gave a college hour presentation to a packed house about the science of snow.  Actually, there were only five folks there, but they filled the room with their intrigue, interest, and enthusiasm – making it feel like a packed house.  The talk was about the scientific process of snowflake formation and destruction (what happens to the flakes over time after they fall to the ground).  I pontificated about what happens to snow over time in a snowpack and how this can lead to either amazing downhill skiing/snowboarding, knee-tweaking skiing (breakable crust), amazing Nordic crust cruising (another blog post someday?), and dangerous backcountry conditions regarding avalanching slopes. 

Figure 5. Crust Cruising near Broken Top, self-portrait

Ironically, the next day, I skied onto a slope by Middle Sister in the Cascades, and triggered the largest, most potentially dangerous avalanche I have ever been involved in.  It was still a relatively minor avalanche, on a slope with relatively low consequences, but I did indeed make a mistake.  Luckily, I skied out of the avalanche unscathed. 

Equally as ironic, I already signed up to take a Level II avalanche course with Aaron Lish and Tim Peterson in COCC’s HHP department to further my education on avalanche safety.  Two weeks after I triggered the avalanche, I spent five days with Aaron, Tim, and eight other students learning about all aspects related to avalanche safety. 

I chalked my mistake up to the human element – one of the four factors that contribute to avalanche hazards.  The human element looks at the decision making process, especially where and when it breaks down.  I have made many good decisions in the backcountry over the past ten years and was even making good decisions early in the day of my incident.  I identified a weak layer of near-surface facetted crystals at an interface between a frozen, rock hard, layer and new snow on top.  Performing stability tests on the snow layers, I saw potentially hazardous, high energy, conditions.  Why did I ski the slope?  The human factors taking away from good, sound decision-making included beautiful lighting and cloud conditions for stunning picture taking, fiddling with a new video camera, changing our objective at the last minute and not reassessing the current hazard on the current slope, being out with a new partner. 

I reflected on this incident a great deal before, during, and after taking the avalanche class.  My friend Wray Landon was not so lucky and did not get a second chance.  I did not know Wray well and only met him a couple times, but he was good friends with one of my good friends, Ty.  Ty and Wray skied a lot together over the past two years including a ski descent from the summit of the Grand Teton.  I first met Wray nearing the end of a randonee (uphill-downhill) race at Jackson Hole a couple years ago.  We were battling it out at the end of the brutal 6000 feet of climbing in the race.  I stepped aside to allow Wray to go ahead on the final climb up a ladder exiting one of the most famous ski runs in the country, Corbett’s Couloir.  After another encounter last summer in Driggs, ID, I could clearly tell that Wray was humble, kind, and loved to ski.  On February 28, Wray triggered an avalanche on the Southeast Face of the South Teton in Wyoming that swept him over a 1500-foot cliff.  Human factors were certainly involved, as a group of skiers had skied the same exact slope the day before, perhaps causing Wray to let his guard down. 

Figure 6. Wray Landon from

I think back to Bentley’s quote, and see it equally applying to Wray: “Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated.  When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”  Wray did leave behind a record;  family and friends will remember him forever.


Take a trip for spring break!

March 17, 2010

Can’t wait for Spring break!  Just a couple more days!

Have no plans to take a trip?  Eugen Helmbrecht, our COCC Media Services specialist, can help here.  Watch his beautifully filmed videos to take a trip to places like Clear Lake, Alvord Desert, or the Steens Mountains. 

If you are a COCC staff or faculty, while you are on campus, you are ecouraged to view Eugen’s videos via the N: drive (that way you do not drain the COCC bandwidth…).   The links to the videos are located at:

N:\Campus Photos\Videos for Central Oregon TV

For those of you off-campus, you may view the videos via the web site at

Watching these films, I was really impressed by the gorgeous scenery, most of it reflecting the region where we live.  Aren’t we the luckiest  to be surrounded by such  beautiful country!?  

Have a great break!

America’s Interest in Consumption. Glenn Beck’s Interest in Distraction.

March 10, 2010

by Tom Barry, Social Sciences

In last week’s Conx posting, Tina Hovekamp invited people into the world of mass consumption and stuff.  As indicated in that posting, the short film Story of Stuff has attracted significant attention for those interested in, and concerned about, mass consumption. It has also drawn criticism for providing an unbalanced view of capitalism and consumption. 

A few months ago someone suggested I watch the film.  I did.  In less than thirty minutes, the film provides an overview, albeit oversimplified, of mass consumption and our economic and cultural dependence on it.  As a sociologist and academic, my assessment is that the filmmakers laid out some general ideas about mass consumption.  But because of their target audience, a younger general public demographic, as well as the time constraints, the film did not provide much statistical and analytical depth. 

As I read Tina’s Conx posting, I was curious about what others found fault in the film.  To start my archeological dig into discovering the criticisms, I simply typed the film’s title into the Google search engine. I scrolled down the top hits.  The top two hits were for the Story of Stuff video site.  The third links to a commentary provided by Glenn Beck, the conservative Fox News pundit.  Regardless of the title he chooses to wear, he is not a journalist, educator, nor academic.  He is a pundit.  In fact, he would likely cringe at the prospects of being called an academic.  And that is a benefit to academia, for him to claim that title would undermine academia’s engagement in seeking discourse, debate, and analysis. 

The fifth hit down is for a Fox News link.  The title of this link is “Viral Video ‘The Story of Stuff’ is Full of Misleading Numbers.”  I went to the link to find out more about the misleading numbers.  Unfortunately, the link did not provide analysis.  It only provided hollow critiques that indicated a more direct political agenda than could be argued for the actual film Story of Stuff.  Glenn Beck’s inflammatory and unsubstantiated criticisms do not speak to what is invalid about the film, but rather, in a strange way, the film’s validity.  By this I mean, a valid critique would break down the Story of Stuff argument, examine the evidence, and draw conclusions.  A critique founded on this analytical approach, would add to our collective knowledge and further engage people in the search for perspective and truth.  If Glenn Beck and Fox News really were to offer a true analysis of the film, we would all benefit from being more informed.  But, as I said, Beck and Fox News are not interested in weighing the evidence or positions provided in the film.  If they did, then some of the links made between mass consumption, globalization, capitalism, environmental pollution, and compromising social welfare would be supported.  And this would bring into question the limitations of free-market capitalism as a solution to all of our social ills. 

Aside from the shallow criticism made about the film, the Story of Stuff is reflection of a larger social pulse.  In recent years, many documentary films, such as this year’s Academy Award nominated Food, Inc., and popular press books, such as Fast Food Nation, have drawn the interest of a public concerned about the interrelationships between mass consumption, governmental policy, community welfare, and people’s struggle for economic survival.  Rather than shutting down this debate about capitalism, we would better served by advancing the debate.


March 3, 2010

By Tina Hovekamp, Library

Materialism, consumerism, and environmental activism.  That’s a perfect concoction for controversy, isn’t it? And that’s what a 20-minute video, The Story of Stuff, by Annie Leonard, seems to have been since its first release in December 2007. This provocative and engaging video uses simple but effective line animation to leave a strong impression in your mind about the costs of the materials economy that we live in (and believe me, the 20-minutes watching it can go pretty fast!). Although the video and its controversy have been around for almost two years, I actually found out about it accidentally as I was looking for course material for my new LIB299 class. The Story of Stuff is full of facts and statements that point to the impact of a consumer based economy where excessive production, consumption, and dumping of materials has serious implications not only for the environment but also for social disparities between societies and nations.  Besides the enthusiasm this video generated even among schools where teachers use  it as part of their curriculum, there have also been strong critics of the facts and statements in The Story of Stuff. Some of these critics claim that the statistics presented are inaccurate or exaggerated allowing the author to indoctrinate and even generate unreasonable fears about the effects of materials consumption. Myself, as I watched this video, I felt that it definitely makes you think raising as many questions as it answers (perhaps it can be used in your classes for student discussion, too!). Where and how does our stuff get made?   Where does it get dumped?  How does production and consumption affect social justice, compromise health care and living conditions in other nations, impact local natural environments?    

But I better let you watch the video yourself.  Write us your comments using the ‘comments’ link below!