Who doesn’t love snow? It’s the best paint nature has, transforming natural canvases into something otherworldly and utterly beautiful, whether it falls in the Sahara Desert or on the rusty plains of Mars. NASA, as it turns out, is quite keen on snow too – and they’ve demonstrated this by producing a mesmerizing 3D numerical model of a snowflake in the process of melting away, the very first of its kind.
Many highly intricate melting processes observed in real life experimentation studies are replicated here, from the gathering of meltwater in concave segments of each individual snowflake, to their accumulation to form a liquid shell around an ice core. Ultimately, the snowflake transforms into a water droplet.
Jussi Leinonen of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the developer of the simulation, was hoping to give scientists a better way of pinpointing on radar whether snowfall is light, or if it’s the heavier kind.
In an accompanying study in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, Leinonen and fellow co-author Annakaisa von Lerber from the Finnish Meteorological Institute, further explain the rationale behind their model.
There’s often a segment of melting snowflakes high up in the atmosphere, as temperatures begin to rise as they fall down to Earth. “The layer of melting snowflakes can, among other things, affect weather patterns, block radio signals, and be a hazard to aircraft,” the authors explain. The better we can spot and analyze this layer, the better off we'll be on the ground, then.
This stunning work reminds us that NASA isn’t just interested in what lies above, in the shadowy beyond. They have, among other things, a cutting-edge Earth Science program too, one that – despite the President's efforts – got a funding boost courtesy of a somewhat defiant Congress. Climate and environmental change is high on their agenda, and this applies to the frigid world of the cryosphere too.
Ice, whether that be in the form of individual glaciers or colossal ice sheets, is enormously important to our planet’s ecological wellbeing – and much of it forms through the accumulation of snowfall, so long as it exceeds the region’s snowmelt.
Ice and snow act as massive mirrors, ones that reflect a decent amount of sunlight back into space rather than allow it to be soaked up by the oceans. The disintegration or destabilization of massive ice sheets and their associated shelves doesn’t just shrink these mirrors, mind you; it also ultimately affects sea level rise.
This – and for many other reasons – is why the science of snow is vital to our understanding of the world, and how it’s changing. So although this indubitably beautiful simulation of snow is focused on ultra-fine, microscopic processes, it plays a role in a larger tale, one that partly determines our planet’s future.