Tom Ross: Tread of Pioneers Museum in Steamboat displays the beauty of snow crystals |

Tom Ross: Tread of Pioneers Museum in Steamboat displays the beauty of snow crystals

Lex Arnold, of Los Gatos, Calif., admires the snowflake photographs of Cal Tech physicist Kenneth Libbrecht on Friday at the Tread of Pioneers Museum in Steamboat Springs. The exhibit is open until April 10.

— Perhaps you've noticed as I have that the most productive snowstorms in the Yampa Valley seem to begin gradually with small snow crystals and gradually build into an all-day affair. The showier storms that come blustering in with dense walls of giant flakes are more apt to fizzle out after 30 minutes and leave us wanting more.

Of course, anytime the snowflakes are big and fuzzy and the storm proves to have staying power, we're in for a fantastic ski outing the next morning. I'm not the least embarrassed to try to catch one of the slowly descending flakes on my tongue.

People visiting Steamboat Springs this winter have an opportunity to learn a little more about the science of snowflakes while admiring their beauty in a photo exhibit at the Tread of Pioneers Museum called “Snowflakes, Nature's Dazzling Design.” It brings together the pioneering work of Wilson A. "Snowflake" Bentley and the modern photomicroscopy of California Institute of Technology physics Professor Kenneth Libbrecht.

The images include Bentley's work beginning in the late 19th century showing the world the seemingly limitless variations in snow crystals. Bentley was a self-educated Vermont farmer who succeeded in adapting a microscope to a wooden bellows camera. He made the first image of an individual snow crystal in 1885.

His photographs are remarkably clear given the available technology. They are on display at the Jericho Historical Society in Jericho, Vt.

Libbrecht, a physicist exploring the mechanics of snowflake formation in clouds and obviously in love with the beauty of his complex subject matter, has produced stunning images. You can admire his photographs at his snow crystals page and learn more about the science of snowflakes at his Web page at Cal Tech. He even has written a field guide to snowflakes.

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What you may not know about falling snow is that large, feathery flakes actually comprise many individual snow crystals that have come together.

Nolan J. Doesken and Steamboat resident Art Judson described the magic of watching large snowflakes falling in their June 1996 book, "The Snow Booklet," published by the Colorado Climate Center and Colorado State University Department of Atmospheric Science.

"Temperatures are just above freezing. Snowflakes two inches across float and spin slowly to the ground and melt. You stand watching, wondering, mesmerized — unconcerned that each of these flakes (polycrystals) are composed of tens, perhaps hundreds of individual snow crystals."

Doesken is the state climatologist and Judson is a retired avalanche forecaster for the U.S. Forest Service. Both have spent more time in snow than most of us.

Doesken and Judson describe how rising air expands, causing it to cool and its capacity for water vapor to decrease, leading to saturation. Near the point of saturation, tiny salt particles and droplets of sulfuric and nitric acid act as nuclei for condensation, where water vapor is deposited.

At the same time, some water vapor changes directly to ice and condense onto tiny clay particles.

The cloud, at this point, contains vapor, tiny ice crystals and super-cooled cloud droplets, Doesken and Judson write. The ice crystals tend to grow at the expense of water droplets in a process that is difficult to explain, the authors said, but is important in the formation of precipitation.

"A transfer of water molecules from droplets to vapor to ice crystals evolves. Snow is born," they write.

You have all winter to appreciate the “Nature's Dazzling Design” exhibit at the Tread of Pioneers Museum. Surely you can give up one half-day of skiing to appreciate what makes Steamboat's snow so special.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

If you go

What: Snowflakes, Nature’s Dazzling Design photography exhibit

Where: Tread of Pioneers Museum, 800 Oak St.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; closed Mondays and Sundays

Details: The exhibit is on display until April 10, and books of snow crystal photography by Professor Kenneth Libbrecht are available in the museum store.

Cost: $5 for adults, $4 for seniors 63 and older, $1 for children ages 6 to 12, FREE for Routt County residents and children 5 and younger

Phone: 970-879-2214

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