Researchers in Sweden have recently made a surprising discovery: an entirely new kind of snowflake that they have called the “trunkstar snowflake.” This new discovery could help manufacturers create safer tires, allow cities create more efficient road maintenance or help ski resorts offer ideal slope conditions.
According to the Luleå Technical University website, the new snowflake is long, hollow, and looks like a star with a small trunk sticking out.
Johan Casselgren, the lead researcher at LTU, spoke about the new snowflake. He explained that before this new discovery, there were two types of snowflakes. The first is flat and star-like. The second is more cylinder-shaped. This recently discovered snowflake is a combination of both.
The team of researchers, all part of the LTU Snow Academy, confess that they discovered the new snowflake by accident. Working in the coastal town of Luleå, Sweden, less than 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the team was actually testing out mechanical functions in the snow when the snowflake discovery was made.
Fredrick Forsberg, a researcher in Experimental Mechanics and part of the team, explained in the university article of how they discovered the trunkstar snowflake.
“In the test, where we found the trunkstar snowflake there were about 500 snowflakes, all with unique shapes and features. It was almost like watching cave paintings when studying the results and the unique patterns that nature created. Absolutely amazing! Then we got charmed by this snowflake with its unique geometry.”
Saying that he had “mixed emotions” over the discovery of the trunkstar snowflake, Casselgren explained the research team had the help of some state-of-the-art technology.
Forsberg revealed that the study equipment was originally used for materials like metals or wood, but this was the first time that these devices looked at snowflakes
Casselgren explained that a microtomography, a “technique” base on an x-ray, allows them to see individual snow crystals.
The x-rays are taken from different angles in order to later construct a full 3D image of a single flake.
The research team also use three different optic methods: holography, spectrometer, and road-eye sensor, in their research on snowflakes. The visualization software makes this a 3D “fly-though” experience.
As snow can be either a “resource or a problem,” the goal of the team is to establish the “properties of snow,” and increase the time it takes to “characterize the snow,” in order to react to that particular type of snow. They use the example of ski slopes or determining the “density of frost and ice” on wind turbines as a need to quickly identify the type of snow that has fallen.
This research is not intended to be a “gimmick.” The group at LTU intends to uncover insights into how snow changes. Snow itself is only different when falling. In order to study snowflakes, the researchers have to catch each flake as it falls. When snowflakes have reached the ground, they become ice crystals. Yet, if snow is packed, it can become like a sphere, or it can be more brittle like ice.
In addition, the researchers also study how the individual ice crystals behave and react when they are compacted together using different methods.
In this age of global warming, they also want to see how snowflakes alter in different temperatures and in different environments.
The research team currently works with other organizations including the Swedish Space Agency, and in the future intends on working with other types of companies to help improve current technologies and products that are affected by snow conditions.