Eighty five years ago today, Wilson Alwyn Bentley died of pneumonia. It was December 23, 1931, and outside his home in Jericho, Vermont, the sky was ripe for snow. His final diary entry read: “Cold north wind afternoon. Snow Flying.” It was the sort of weather he had lived for.
Bentley began to observe snow at 15 years old, when his mother bought him a microscope. It consumed his days, he later recalled:
When the other boys of my age were playing with popguns and sling-shots, I was absorbed in studying things under this microscope: drops of water, tiny fragments of stone, a feather dropped from a bird’s wing, a delicately veined petal from some flower. But always, from the very beginning, it was snowflakes that fascinated me most. The farm folks, up in this north country, dread the winter; but I was supremely happy.
Over the subsequent decades, Bentley photographed more than 5,000 snowflakes, and created the first photomicrograph of an ice crystal, combining a microscope and an accordion-shaped bellows camera. A professor of natural history who became known as “the snowflake man,” he demonstrated what is now a common adage: no two snowflakes are alike.
The snow Bentley observed at a microscopic scale, satellites now see at the size of whole continents. The subject matter that fascinated him still provides fodder for heaps of scientific papers today.
December 2016 has brought a flurry of Bentley-esuqe weather to the U.S. East Coast, including snow and biting winds. But long before winter kicked into full gear in cities like Washington and New York, it painted landscapes around the world white. From Japan to Kazakhstan, NASA satellites observed snow from space. So if you’re dreaming of a white Christmas or waiting for the gingerbread cookies to bake, here are several images—some we previously published, and others that are quite fresh.
December 19: ‘Gateway to the Desert’ Gets First Snow in 37 Years
Snow fell in the town of Ain Sefra for the first time in nearly four decades this December. Satellites show a thin, white veil covering the orange sand dunes of the northern Sahara. The Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) on the Landsat 7 satellite captured this natural-color image of snow on December 19, 2016. On the ground, Photographer Karim Bouchetata captured the snow before it melted.
December 14: The Great Lakes Don a White Cloak
An Arctic air mass brought more snow to communities around the Great Lakes on December 14, 2016. The lake-effect snow comes on the heels of an earlier accumulation that piled up to several feet of snow in some areas, according to reports. Officials issued weather warnings and advisories from northeast Ohio to upstate New York.
December 2: Snow and ash above Katmai
A plume of volcanic ash hangs over the Gulf of Alaska in this natural-color image. The plume is not the product of an active volcano; it contains re-suspended ash from the 1912 eruption of Novarupta, according to the Alaska Volcano Observatory.
November 27: Snow 2.0
The white hills sprawling in every direction look like mounds built by snow plows, or massive hills of sugar. In fact, they’re the world’s largest gypsum dune field: the White Sands National Monument, located in southern New Mexico.
During the last Ice Age, melting snow and ice from the San Andres Mountains (west of the dunes) and the Sacramento Mountains (to the east) eroded minerals from the hillsides and carried them downhill to the basin below. As the climate warmed and the water evaporated, the basin remained full of selenite (the crystalline form of gypsum) and created the Alkali Flats. Over time, winds broke the crystals into sand grains, which built up into the dunes.
November 25: Rare November snow in Tokyo
On November 24, 2016, Tokyo received its first November snowfall in more than half a century. The snow fell in and around the Japanese capital, coating the metropolitan area.
The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this natural-color image the same day. Central Tokyo is gray-brown in color, suggesting less accumulation or faster melting. Urban centers tend to shed snow faster than surrounding countryside because they are often hotter, a result of the urban heat island effect.
November 20: White hills appear amid green in England
Snow arrived in parts of northern England before a satellite took this image on November 20. According to reports, the same storm brought high winds and lashing rain farther south, in Kent and Sussex.
November 17: White Kazakhstan
Broad swaths of Kazakhstan turned white before this Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) image was taken on November 17, 2016. Parts of the country saw temperatures dipping well below freezing, with extreme wind chills. That’s not a surprise for locals; the country’s capital, Astana, often experiences frigid days in winter months.
November 5: Snow meets lava in Iceland
More than a year after the latest eruption at Iceland’s Holuhraun lava field, the newly-formed lava may still be toasty underneath. Although the basaltic rock formed a hard crust, according to volcanologists, the flow is probably still hot enough to prevent snow from building up atop it.
“You’re not going to freeze the lava flow,” said Erik Klemetti, a volcanologist at Denison University and author of the Eruptions blog at Wired magazine. “You need to wait for the soil to freeze to get snow to accumulate in temperate latitudes.”
October 7: Early snow blankets Nebraska
Snow dusted parts of Nebraska on October 6, 2016. This natural-color image, acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite, shows a white blanket covering about 40 square miles (more than 100 square kilometers). Photos taken by highway cameras showed snow falling along parts of U.S. Route 83 on the afternoon of October 6.