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Custom cameras catch weather clues, beauty in Utah snowflakes

Published January 8, 2014 9:15 am

U. research • Images aid forecasters and avalanche center, offer look at "a zoo of very odd looking creatures."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

They say every snowflake is unique.

University of Utah researchers test that theory every time it snows at Alta Ski Area in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Multi-Angle Snowflake Cameras — constructed at the U. and now being provided to other weather-related researchers — placed at Alta automatically kick on when snow starts to fall and record images until it stops.

"Since April of 2011 we have obtained views of snowflakes that I don't think have ever been seen before," said Tim Garrett, a professor in the department of atmospheric sciences and lead researcher in the project. "We are seeing things that really are new and exciting. We are opening up scientific questions that we had not thought about before."

Garrett is not the only one who gets to see the results. The Snowflake Showcase page on the Alta website allows anyone with an Internet connection to get up close and personal with flakes before they become part of Utah's Greatest Snow on Earth.

Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center, has the page bookmarked and uses the images to help form avalanche-warning reports.

"I love the Snowflake site, and I like to look at it to see what kind of crystals are falling. The site is especially useful during big storms when we can get avalanches breaking within the new snow," Tremper said. "For instance, if the storm starts out with [flakes called] stellar plates, then switches to graupel — that Styrofoam ball kind of snow — then you know that the density has gone way up and you have what we call 'upside-down' snow, meaning denser snow on top of lighter snow, which can cause avalanches."

Garrett came up with the idea for taking pictures of snowflakes during a ski day in the Cascade Mountains in the late 1990s. He was riding a lift with a fellow graduate student who was a "true meteorologist."

"He pointed out to me the incredible variations in snowflake shape over very short distances as we went up the ski lift," Garrett recalled.

Being able to document the kinds of snowflakes and how fast they are falling allows better weather forecasting by characterizing the snow in clouds.

Garrett had tried to measure clouds and snowflakes from an aircraft during research in the Arctic, but that proved difficult and expensive.

Equations used to predict how fast certain kinds of snowflakes fall were created by researchers in the early 1970s on the Cascade Mountains. They collected flakes on Saran Wrap and took 300 pictures while recording how fast similar flakes fell.

"It was painstaking and, as you can imagine, as soon as one of the snowflakes fell on the surface, it collapsed on its own weight and that was how the picture was taken," Garrett said. "It's not the same thing as taking one free-falling in the air."

Technology created by Cale Fallgatter, then a master's degree graduate in mechanical engineering at the U., has created "a million snowflake pictures" in a single winter.

It took Fallgatter three years of building prototypes before the Multi-Angle Snowflake Cameras (MASC) were posted at Alta.

Fallgatter has since created Fallgatter Technologies to produce more MASC devices. Garrett said one MASC is at the Mammoth Ski Area in California and is helping the U.S. Army study avalanches. At least two other MASC devices are being used for climate studies — one in Alaska and one on the Greenland ice sheet.

While the cameras record important data and provide vital weather research, Garrett often finds himself clicking on the Snowflake Showcase webpage to see the endless variety of patterns.

"The shapes are just so beautiful, interesting and exciting. My wife sometimes calls herself a snowflake widow," he said. "We have this ingrained conception that snowflakes are these six-sided creatures that possess some symmetry. Rather what we see in snowflake shapes is a zoo of very odd looking creatures that are almost impossible to define."

Flake-aholics who just can't get enough from the website may be pleased to hear that work is being done on an iPhone app to help them get their fix.

brettp@sltrib.com

Twitter: @BrettPrettyman —

Watching the snow fall

See the Snowflake Showcase page on the Alta Ski Area website. Clicking on a flake brings it into closer focus.

Find Tim Garrett's gallery of higher resolution images and slide shows here.