Magic of the Snow

Miraculous Snow and the Muskegon River

By Marilyn Keigley

After studying and photographing snow crystals for six years, it is a wonder anyone could grow up in Michigan without noticing the hundreds of designs. Do you recall the one license plate we all bought from 1965-1967— “Water-Winter Wonderland?” We still experience our winter wonderland and we still face ecological issues. Snow and snowmelt are important ecological factors for the Muskegon River. Rivers are part of the earth’s soul. Snow provides a mighty cleansing system, a sunlight reflection shield, and a beautiful landscape to behold.

Cleansing System
Without rain and snow, gases and particles from human activity (and natural phenomena) would make clean air impossible. Like magic, snow cleanses our air, making dust and pollution ‘sort of’ disappear. Pollution and particles build up and cloud droplets become a gathering place for fine particles. Thousands of particles stick to a single cloud droplet. It takes a million cloud droplets to make a raindrop. That is a LOT of particles! Auto exhausts—benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes—attach to falling snow. So do not eat snow, no matter where you are! Snow miraculously cleans the air, but the problem is transferred to the ground and becomes a climate/ecology issue.

Photos right—12-point and 6-point stellar crystals.

Sunlight Reflecting System
Snow also magically (well ok, scientifically) reflects sunlight, making snow appear white. Snow reflects 80-90% of sunlight back into space, appropriately extending the winter season and balancing the timing of spring and snow melt along the Muskegon River. Dirty (polluted) snow melts too fast and can throw off the timing of spring, plant life, and snow melt, thus affecting water levels throughout the watershed.

Beauty of Snow Crystals
A snowflake can have several or even a hundred single snow crystals attached together. However, a snow crystal is a single snowflake. Every snow crystal begins with dust or salt as frozen water molecules begin to attach, making hexagonal formations. Amazingly, water vapor goes directly to a frozen state when snow crystals form.

The real mystery is in the intricate design of snow crystals that is seen due to light reflection. Crystals are actually clear—not white—but we probably do not have to rewrite the story of Snow White, calling her Snow Clear! Snow Crystals have ridges, edges, spikes and grooves that reflect light making snow appear white. There are many unusual shapes—a few are pictured here. Most are stellar 6-points and a 12-point is a bit like finding a 4-leaf clover. Only once did I find an arrowhead twins (pictured above the needle shape crystal). The hollow-column and an irregular—seen below, are also interesting. Different shapes appear at different temperatures and weather conditions and are best photographed at cold temperatures (10-12 degrees F).

Depending on location and weather, snow can be clumpy and uninteresting. So when the beautiful shapes do appear, grab a magnifying glass and take a look! The first person to photograph snowflakes was Wilson Bentley (1885). In Vermont, he photographed snow crystals almost daily every winter. One winter he went into Canada and was only able to photograph 16 in that location. (For comprehensive snowflake information, see

If winter seems to drag on, remember this—snow cleanses the air and reflects sunlight to maintain the ground cover and evaporation balance of an intricate system within our Muskegon Watershed. Take a winter walk with a magnifying glass and enjoy the show!