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Cool high speed camera captures snowflakes as they fall

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
April 10th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Folks in the northern and eastern parts of the United States could probably do without seeing any more snowflakes, ready as they are for spring to come. However University of Utah researchers are sharing with the world some really cool pictures of--more snow.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - University of Utah researchers have designed and built a super high speed camera that has spent the last two winters photographing snowflakes as they fell. Until now, there have been no high-quality photographs of snowflakes taken in the process of falling.

Tim Garrett, associate professor of atmospheric sciences told Phys.org, "Until our device, there was no good instrument for automatically photographing the shapes and sizes of snowflakes in free-fall. We are photographing these snowflakes completely untouched by any device, as they exist naturally in the air."

Snowflakes are typically photographed on glass slides, under high magnification that makes them look exquisitely beautiful. Their intricate patterns are so complex that no two are ever alike. Individually, they are fascinating objects.

However, snowflakes typically fall in small clumps which create the flakes that most people are accustomed to seeing.

The camera was not created solely for the purpose of taking pretty pictures. The camera was funded by both NASA and the U.S. Army. The goal was to improve computer simulations of falling snow so they could improve radar systems.

The improved radar systems should help meteorologists do a better job of forecasting the weather. One of the difficulties meteorologist face is calculating the speed of snowfall. Data gleaned from the camera is expected to help them refine methods that will provide greater accuracy when measuring storms.

Garrett explained, "For forecasting the weather, fall speed is the thing that matters. The weather models right now do OK at simulating clouds, but they are struggling to accurately reproduce precipitation: rain or snow, but particularly snow. The problem is that we do not have a very good sense for how the sizes and shapes of snow particles relate to how fast they fall. This is important because the lifetime of a storm, and where exactly it snows, depends greatly on how fast snow precipitates."

The camera has an exposure speed of 1/40000 of a second, which allows it to take crystal-clear snapshots of the snowflakes as they fall, without blurring. These images can then be used to evaluate the size of the flakes, and are correlated with other meteorological data.

According to researchers, errors in the shape and size of snowflakes, is part of what causes errors in forecasting.

Soon, researchers hope that information gleaned from their work will be combined with current methods, to help improve forecasting.

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