Earlier yesterday, we were hemmed in by a cold, dense fog. Later in the day weather conditions morphed into a storm of little ice pellets that bounced off the frozen grass like popcorn, clicking like tiny fingernails on my window glass. Fearless Editor Hank stopped by my office, and I pointed excitedly out the window.
“I know what that is!”
“What? The sleet?” he asked, peering out into the yuck outside.
“No! It’s grapple … no, wait … not that … it’s … it’s GRAUPEL!”
See? There is an exactly right word for absolutely everything. Graupel isn’t just your garden-variety sleet. It’s that fluffy, pellet-y stuff that forms when freezing fog condenses on a snowflake. The distinction between sleet and graupel, I think, is that graupel is fluffy-looking and sleet is icy. Graupel looks like a hybrid between snow and a ball-bearing.
Call me a wonk; I love these minute distinctions that make one thing not another. One of the ways I know I’m in exactly the right career is the glee I feel when I’ve discovered the precisely right word for something.
I also love that other people care enough about the physical world to create these bodies of distinctions. Somebody was really paying attention when they noticed not only that snowflakes were very different from each other, but that they fit in particular categories.
As I cruised the Internet yesterday, searching for more information on graupel (a surprising body of information can be found, as it turns out), I stumbled upon this post on Ðrawn Association describing the work of Wilson Allen Bentley, a 19-year-old farmer living in Vermont in 1885, who has now become sort of the Patron Saint of Snowflakes. Fascinated by snow crystals, this teenager was the first person to successfully produce a photo of snow or ice crystals. He magnified crystals at 69 to 3,000 times on glass plates, and ultimately verified that every ice crystal actually is unique, growing symmetrically in a 6-sided hexagon around a miniscule nucleus. The shape the snowflake ultimately takes depends on its water content and the temperature.
Those photos by Bentley completely knock me out. Photography was in its infancy when he started experimenting with photographing snowflakes. And he had to invent a new camera to be able to pursue his obsession. But just look at those photos. Simply amazing and awe-inspiring, just because a curious Vermont teenager cared enough to keep at an intellectual pursuit day after day, year after year.
After being inspired by Bentley's photos, check out www.snowcrystals.com to find more snowflake photos and physics as well as links to help you find snow activities (such as "snowflake watching") for children and adults.
Let’s hear it for slightly fey compulsions, pretty pictures—and also graupel.