It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a…snowflake?

In this day and age, it seems as though there are statistics, records, and rankings for everything. Top ten most expensive plants? Check. Ten most poisonous animals in the world? There’s a list for that (hint: be very careful swimming in the ocean waters of northern Australia). Here is another record which you may not be aware of: on this date (January 28) in 1887, the world’s largest snowflake is said to have fallen on the Fort Keogh Army Post in Montana. How did this record-breaking event come to be recorded, and why has the record not been broken? Let’s take a closer look.

As one might expect, the practice of measuring the size of snowflakes is not a common occurrence, nor has it ever been, and thus the record is not as sure as, say, the world’s oldest living human. However, it is widely reported that Guinness records a snowflake which fell on this date in this location as the world’s largest. Reportedly, the snowflake was observed by soldiers at the Fort Keogh outpost in what was then Montana territory.

Fort Keogh was located on the western edge of what is now Miles City, in southeastern Montana.

On January 28, 1887, a snowstorm impacted the area with heavy snow, and several soldiers remarked about the extraordinarily large snowflakes which were falling at that time. While there is no photographic evidence to support this claim, it was widely reported that this record-breaking flake measured fifteen inches in diameter. It was noted in the St. Albans (VT) Daily Messenger that a nearby rancher claimed that the snowflakes with this storm were ‘larger than milkpans’.

Clipping from the St. Albans Daily Messenger from January 1887. Courtesy: National Weather Service.

While I do not profess to be an expert on the size of milkpans, it would appear that this particular storm created some very large snowflakes- large enough that people took notice and talked about it. While fifteen inches wide and eight inches thick seems very large for a single snowflake, many times conditions favor what we call ‘aggregation’, which is essentially the process by which snowflakes ‘stick together’ on their trip down to the surface. Regardless of whether the snowflake(s) actually broke any records, the story has become something of a pop culture phenomenon, even being commemorated in a Google Doodle back in 2012.

January 28, 2012 Google Doodle commemorating the 125th anniversary of the world’s largest snowflake. In the original, the animated snowflake fell down from the sky, scaring away nearby birds.

If you are interested to know more about snowflakes and how they form, check out this website about William (Snowflake) Bentley, who was a pioneer in the area of snowflake photography, catologing over 5000 images of snowflakes. For more recent snowflake photography, Nathan Myhrvold (a former CTO of Microsoft) built a camera with a microscope lens and takes amazing pictures of snowflakes and other phenomena, and blogs about his experiences here. Dr. Kenneth G. Libbrecht of Caltech’s Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy has researched and written extensively on the physics of ice crystal growth. His website, snowcrystals.com, has lots of easy-to-understand explanations of the science behind how snowflakes form, what shapes and sizes they take, and why they have six sides.

One Reply to “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a…snowflake?”

  1. Hey ask Tom if he still has the AFD Glen Wiley wrote on his last day he worked at Albany. I believe it Dec. 12 2002 or around that date.

    He mentioned how that night (yes there was a snowstorm) he saw the largest snowflakes he ever saw, falling at the station. We ended with 6-8 inches with that one. which started as sleet and then “rimed” away.

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