We’re back in Australian waters. It’s so warm now… its 55F outside! In a day or so we’ll be back at the dock and disembarking. On the ship we’re trying to finish up the cruise report and pack up samples for shipping. I even have a few “samples” to pack—about 5 microscope slides.

Catching Antarctic Snowflakes

Antarctic snowflakes, preserved in crazy glue, under a microscope.
I wasn’t entirely sure this would work, since it was just something I read on the internet and the instructions were pretty vague. But I’d already shipped the supplies seven months ahead of time when I didn’t really know what I’d have the time to do on the vessel. We had microscope slides, cover slips, and crazy glue—just add snow—so Amy and I figured we’d give it a try.

The internet said I just had to chill the slides and crazy glue, put a snowflake on the slide, dab a drop of crazy glue on top and gently add the cover slip. After letting it sit in a freezer for 2 days, I would have a preserved snowflake. That’s it. I was pretty sure it would take a bit more finesse than that. I don’t always like it when I’m right.

I think the first hard part was finding snow. It doesn’t snow that often in Antarctica, it’s technically a desert here. And when it did snow, the wind was usually blowing so hard it shredded the snowflakes into tiny, mutilated ice chunks. One time we thought we had snow, so Amy and I bundled up, grabbed all our gear and ran outside to find rain, freezing into little spheres on the deck. It was an Antarctic heat wave.

When we finally did get some good snow, the next step was perfecting our technique. We tried scraping the snowflakes off the deck with slides. But if you hold the slide too long you watch the perfect snowflake you spent precious minutes hunting for in -30F melt as it touches your slide. I tried letting my hands go numb with cold so the snowflakes wouldn’t melt, only find myself crushing snowflakes like bugs and shattering the paper thin glass cover slips due to my cold-induced lack of dexterity. I did at least have the foresight to keep my hands bare to avoid accidentally super-gluing my gloves to a slide or to my jacket, or worse, to my face.

After capturing a few snowflakes and probably not crushing them with the cover slips, the next step was getting them to the -20F freezer in the lab to set before they melted. We didn’t actually need a -20F freezer, but it was the warmest freezer we had access to on a science vessel that wasn’t holding food. Slides in hand Amy and I ran through the ship, still clad in our extreme cold weather gear, from the deck through the hall down the stairs and down the next hall to the freezer. At one point, a cover slip got knocked off one of my slides and became glued to a door and then to my hand. At least it didn’t get glued to one of the people in the hall we barreled past on the way to the lab.

After some trial and error we found that it was actually easier to catch a snowflake on the slide, when possible, rather than scraping/crushing/breaking them off the deck onto the glass slips. And Amy got permission for us to leave a container, secured to the ship, outside to store our slides in the below freezing air. This seemed preferable to running the snowflakes through the halls on the boat to get to the freezer only to find all we had preserved was a small puddle of Antarctic water when we checked them two days later.

On a rare day of snow with only a little wind, we went out to the helicopter pad to try catching snowflakes yet again. We even recruited a couple more people to our cause. Because the helicopter pad is normally closed, we had to radio the Bridge for permission to catch snowflakes—to… do what?—catch snowflakes—….O…K… permission granted... Anyone tuning in on the ships CCTV of the helo-pad probably thought we looked like crazy people. We staggered around the platform in the swell, chasing the small flurries of snow, hoods up on our puffy, insulated jackets against the cold, and arms outstretched to the sky as we tried to catch snowflakes on our near invisible microscope slides. When we got one we’d huddle together to block the breeze so our precious and hard collected ice crystals wouldn’t blow off the glass before we could carefully secure it with crazy glue and the cover slip. Sometimes, when I got too impatient waiting for the snowflakes to land on the microscope slides, I’d frantically wave my arms up and down to catch them on the lining of my jacket and then pick them off with a nail file for the slides.

This last iteration of our snowflake collection attempts worked. Though my “final” product is actually a pretty shoddy piece of showmanship. My cover slip, well off-center, juts from the edge of the slide threatening anyone not paying attention with a glass “paper cut.” There’s also some nice red fibers from the fraying sleeves of my ECW jacket stuck in the glue with the snowflakes. But I preserved an Antarctic snowflake.

Having captured a snowflake, I figured I should probably teach people something about them for my blog entry. However, I realized that I’m really the only one that needs to learn more about snowflakes, having only ever been in the snow seven times in my life. So I looked up “snowflake” on the internet. Most of the information I already knew, hexagonally symmetric snow crystals form through super cooling that fall from the sky, etc. But I did learn that in 1988 a researcher found two identical snowflakes. The people behind the study then decided to go to the extreme effort to show that the two identical snowflakes were still—most likely—distinct at the atomic level. That seems like a lot of work for a snowflake.

Snowflake collage
Antarctic snowflakes, preserved in crazy glue, on a microscope slide. Top row: snowflakes viewed under the microscope. Bottom row: microscope slide with snowflakes.

Dominique Richardson holding a microscope slide with preserved antarctic snow pieces. Photo by Amy Westman.

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Susan Steiner

the picture in my head of you guys waving your arms around trying to get snowflakes is priceless...only wish we had a video!! great story and amazing results!!

jacob partida

pretty cool piece of snowmanship