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.
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.