From: Allison Winter, ENN
Published April 11, 2013 12:31 PM

New Camera Takes Better Pictures of Snowflakes

Winter may be over for most of us in the Northern Hemisphere, and hopefully we will not be expecting any more snowfall, but that doesn't mean we still can't marvel at the intricacies of the snowflake. A team of researchers at the University of Utah have developed a new high-speed camera system that records 3-D images of these snowflakes in hopes of improving radar for weather and snowpack forecasting.

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Funded in part by NASA and the US Army, the team studied falling snow and how it interacts with radar in order to improve computer simulations. As a result, the research has revealed more about how snowy weather can degrade microwave (radar) communications.

Tim Garrett, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah explained: "We are photographing these snowflakes completely untouched by any device, as they exist naturally in the air."

We've always been told that no two snowflakes are alike and according to Garret, "Snow is almost never a single, simple crystal. Rather, a snowflake might experience 'riming,' where perhaps millions of water droplets collide with a snowflake and freeze on its surface. This makes a little ice pellet known as 'graupel.' Or snowflakes collide with other snowflakes to make something fluffier, called an aggregate. And everything is possible in between."

Besides studying the complex structure of the snowflake, there are very serious practical reasons why we need to understand snow better, explains Garret.

"For forecasting the weather, fall speed is the thing that matters," Garrett says. "The weather models right now do OK at simulating clouds, but they are struggling to accurately reproduce precipitation...particularly snow. The problem is that we do not have a very good sense for how the sizes and shapes of snow particles relate to how fast they fall. This is important because the lifetime of a storm, and where exactly it snows, depends greatly on how fast snow precipitates."

With this new snowflake camera known as the MASC for Multi-Angle Snowflake Camera, it can automatically collect thousands of snowflake photographs in a single night which is a huge improvement from the previous data that has been collected by hand.

As a result, researchers can observe how the snowflakes change as they fall and if they change in size or shape depending on where and when they fall.

Read more at the University of Utah News.

Check out some of the snowflake pictures at the MASC Showcase.

Snowflake image via Shutterstock.

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