What’s the Largest Snowflake on Record?

Written by Kellianne Matthews
Published: February 4, 2023
© Mariia Tagirova/Shutterstock.com
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Snowflakes are unique and mesmerizing crystal structures, with dozens of intricate branches that stretch outward like arms reaching toward the sky. No two snowflakes are alike, making them a perennial source of fascination and admiration. But have you ever wondered just how big a snowflake could get? We’ll explore the answer to this question and more as we uncover the amazing story of the largest snowflake on record!

Snowflakes and Snow Crystals

snowflake
A snowflake is a single crystal or several that form a big, fluffy puffball when they collide in midair.

©fotohunter/Shutterstock.com

When we think of snowflakes, most of us imagine the pretty, intricate designs we see on greeting cards and winter decorations. But that’s not usually what snow looks like. Most snow is lumpy, made up of individual ice crystals and frozen water droplets. In fact, perfectly symmetrical ice crystals are quite rare. 

A snowflake can be just one single ice crystal, or it could be a few crystals that have stuck together to form a big, fluffy puffball when they collide in midair.

Scientists say that hundreds or even thousands of tiny crystals can join together to form a single, giant snowflake. But even a single snow crystal can be surprisingly large. Dendrites, for example, are the largest type of snow crystals. Their name comes from Greek, and means “tree,” because they have elaborate arms that look like leafy branches.

Dendrites are more likely to join together than their simpler snowy relatives. The branches of these complex cells seem to form bonds more easily, resulting in large, intertwined groups. Scientists have found that bigger dendrites can act like the center of a storm, with smaller cells coming together around them to form big “flakes”.

How Do Snowflakes Form?

Snowflakes form when tiny ice crystals join together in the cold upper atmosphere. The crystals are formed from water vapor that has frozen into ice when temperatures drop below freezing. In other words, water molecules jump from a gaseous state (water vapor) to a state of solid ice, without ever going through the liquid phase. 

The slow fall of these small pieces of ice causes them to spin and gather more ice particles along their descent, which clump together, creating intricate unique patterns as they grow in size. As they fall through different layers of warmer and colder air, they change shape until they reach the ground.

There is no limit to how big a snowflake can get while it’s still in the air. Large, clumping snowflakes are called “aggregate snowflakes”, and they usually look more like fuzzy white balls. 

However, aggregate snowflakes can be very fragile since the crystals are only loosely connected. Wind or other air turbulence can easily break them apart before they reach the ground. That is why it’s so rare to see large snowflakes. 

What’s the Largest Snowflake on Record?

The largest snowflake ever recorded was an incredible 15 inches wide and 8 inches thick! Can you imagine sticking your tongue out to catch that monster snowflake? According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this snowflake fell in January 1887 during a storm at Fort Keogh, Montana. Matt Coleman, a rancher near the site, was the one to report the sighting, describing the snowflake as “larger than a milk pan”. However, there is no photographic evidence to back up this claim.

Although a snowflake of such a colossal size may be hard to believe, researchers now think that incredible reports like Matt’s are true! It appears that unusually large snowflakes — between 2 to 6 inches wide and possibly even bigger — regularly fall around the globe. They may be surprisingly fluffy and quite large, although not many people get the chance to see them.

How Big Can Snowflakes Get?

Today scientists are beginning to understand the weather patterns that create giant snowflakes and have used laser probes to document the existence of huge flakes. The laws of physics on our planet, it turns out, don’t appear to impose any limits on the size of snowflakes. However, wind can cause them to shatter into pieces, setting a maximum size for the snowflakes that make it to the ground.

For a snowflake to become as big as the record-setter from 1887 — bigger than a football! — the environment would have to be very calm so the flake could have a chance to retain its large shape. Plus, there would need to be a lot of moisture in the air for enough ice crystals and frozen water droplets to collect.

It’s worth noting that the record-breaking snowflake was most likely not the perfectly symmetrical “snowflake” shape we usually think of. Instead, it was likely an aggregate snowflake with an irregular, lumpy shape. 

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The Featured Image

Single snowflake with dark blue, gloomy backdrop
Single snowflake with dark blue, gloomy backdrop
© Mariia Tagirova/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

As a professional writer and editor for many years, I have dedicated my work to the fascinating exploration of anthrozoology and human-animal relationships. I hold a master's degree with experience in humanities, human-animal studies, ecocriticism, wildlife conservation, and animal behavior. My research focuses on the intricate relationships and dynamics between humans and the natural world, with the goal of re-evaluating and imagining new possibilities amid the uncertainty and challenges of the Anthropocene.

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