NASA 3D model gives unprecedented look at melting snowflake

NASA has released a short animation showing the melting process of a snowflake, the first 3D model to show this in action. The 3D model was created by Jussi Leinonen, a scientist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. With it, scientists can better understand how snowflakes melt and, even better, learn to identify more damaging types of snow in radar signals for improved weather predictions.

As NASA explains in the video below, this is the first time anyone has created a 3D model of snowflake melting. The information opens the door for better precipitation models, which could then be used for improved weather forecasts and more. The model featured in the video is composed up multiple ice crystals ("snowflakes") that became tangled with each other in the air.

The total mass of ice crystals measures less than a centimeter in length, with Leinonen finding that water from melting forms on the snowflake's concave regions, then eventually forms a liquid shell around the remaining icy core. Finally, the icy core melts and all that remains is a drop of water.

NASA explains that an opaque coating of small ice particles called rime, which forms when supercooled water vapor touches a snowflake, has a big effect on how the snow melts. Anyone who has lived in a cold winter climate will be familiar with riming, though they've likely observed it as hoarfrost — that is, the seemingly "fluffy" ice crystals that can form on leaves, branches, gates, and other objects.

A low amount of frost on snowflakes leaves them fragile and they melt quickly, says NASA. Ice crystals with a large amount of riming, though, melt at a slower rate. This data paves the way for better weather predictions that can warn when wetter, heavier snowfall is likely, the type of snow that can take down power lines and cause other damage.