'Snowflake Bentley' - a man of the winter season - Coeur d'Alene Press: Weather Gems

'Snowflake Bentley' - a man of the winter season

Weather Gems

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Posted: Monday, January 16, 2012 12:00 am

Due to the fact that my wife Sharon will be teaching her 'Mops Kids' about the uniqueness of snowflakes this Friday at church, I decided to run my 'SNOWFLAKE BENTLEY' annual update column this week.

Wilson 'Snowflake' Bentley was born on a tiny farm near Jericho, Vt., where Sharon and I lived between May of 1995 and August of 2003, on Feb. 9, 1865, toward the end of the Civil War.

According to Jericho's Historical Society, Bentley once said, "I was fascinated by snowflakes almost from the very beginning. I was supremely happy from the first snowfall of the season, usually in early November, until the last one of the winter, which sometimes came as late as the month of May." (We saw snow on Mother's Day on May 12, 1996, in Jericho.)

He went on to add, however, that he became "extremely depressed" during the open winters devoid of snow, much like this winter locally in North Idaho. As of Thursday, Jan. 12, we had measured only 17.2 inches of the white stuff in town during the first half of the winter of 2011-12, this despite a normally snowy 'La Nina.'

During Wilson's 50-year-plus career, which began with his 15th birthday when his parents presented him with a new microscope, he painstakingly photographed more than 5,300 distinct patterns of snow crystals concluding accurately that "no two snowflakes have ever been identical, like fingerprints," he would say.

In 1885, at age 20, Bentley successfully adapted his microscope to a bellows-type camera and soon became the first person in recorded history to photograph a single snow crystal. In fact, in his 66-year lifetime, Wilson collected more photographic negatives of snowflakes than all other observers combined. I recently learned that Bentley also photographed hundreds of raindrops. He likewise was an accomplished self-taught pianist!

As a young boy, Bentley made more than 300 drawings of snow crystals. By the mid-to-late 1880s, he began to document his snowflakes with his camera, often in near sub-zero weather conditions. These beautiful photos became so popular that 'Snowflake' actually sold 200 of them to the famous jewelry store Tiffany's in New York City, who used his snow crystal patterns for designing expensive broaches and pendants. Bentley was also a 'rock hound.' He had an amazing collection of quartz crystals.

On his farm property, Bentley built a shed for taking his pictures. He collected individual snow crystals on a board painted black in an unheated room. He would lift the flake off the board with a splinter of wood and then place the crystal on a microscope slide. He would lastly photograph the snowflake through the microscope using a 50-second exposure. His photographs also proved that all snowflakes are 'hexagonal,' or 'six-sided.'

Bentley's photographs - I have one on the wall in my weather office at home - have been featured in literally hundreds of books, magazines and newspapers around the world in the past century or so. A recent award-winning children's book, "Snowflake Bentley" by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, can be found in most book stores and encourages children of all ages to learn more about him and his beloved snowflakes.

Wilson wrote in 1925, "under the microscope, I found that every snow crystal is a miracle of God's beauty. It seems a shame that this wonder can't be appreciated by others. Every flake is a masterpiece of design by the Creator and no single design has ever been repeated." He went on to add, "when a snowflake melts, that unique design is forever lost, without leaving any record of its beautiful existence."

In 1924, the first research grant ever given by the American Meteorological Society was presented to Wilson ''Snowflake'' Bentley. The grant was small. Bentley appreciated the money, but said that "it didn't come close to matching the time and money put into his work." What he especially appreciated was "the recognition by the scientific community denied to him for nearly three decades."

Again, according to the Jericho Historical Society:

A few years later Dr. William J. Humphreys, chief physicist for the United States Weather Bureau, responding to requests from all over the country to preserve in one collection the best of the Bentley photomicrographs, organized a drive to obtain the necessary financial support. He was successful, and Bentley turned to the enormous task of sorting through some 4,500 photomicro graphs. For one reason or another the work went slowly but, finally, in the summer of 1931 the material was handed in to the publisher. In November the book, "Snow Crystals," was published. It had a short introduction by Humphreys, but by far the major part of the book was a magnificent collection of nearly 2,500 photomicrographs. Most of the pictures were of various forms of the ice crystal; about 100 were of frost and dew. In Jericho Bentley received a copy of the book but, unfortunately, we have no record of how he felt when he held in his hands the work of a lifetime, a work now preserved for all the world to see.

But winter was fast approaching and he had little time to admire the book. He was 66 years old, and though in good health did not get around or do things quite as rapidly as he had before. The camera had to be ready for the first snow. This was the same camera with which he had taken his first photomicrograph 46 years before. It was old, it was battered, but it still worked. With it he had taken his 5,381st photomicrograph on the first of March of the preceding spring. He looked forward to the winter ahead with as much zest as he had approached that first winter with the camera.

He made routine entries in his log book of weather conditions, entries that marched over the pages and through the years to give a unique record of weather in that part of Vermont. On Monday, the 7th of December, 1931, he finished his entry, "Cold north wind afternoon. Snow Flying." That was the last entry Wilson Bentley was ever to make.

The following week both his nephew and wife knew that something was wrong. Bentley stayed in bed for several days, but he refused any help. Nothing was wrong, he said, he had taken care of himself for over 40 years and he didn't need any help now. But by the end of the next week it was clear that something was very much wrong. A doctor was called but it was too late. Wilson Bentley died of pneumonia on the afternoon of the 23rd of December, 1931.

The following day the obituary columns of many a newspaper across the country reported his death. But perhaps the most poignant and understanding comments came from his own hometown paper.

"Longfellow said that genius is infinite painstaking. John Ruskin declared that genius is only a superior power of seeing. Wilson Bentley was a living example of this type of genius. He saw something in the snowflakes which other men failed to see, not because they could not see, but because they had not the patience and the understanding to look.

Truly, greatness blooms in quiet corners and flourishes under strange circumstances. For Wilson Bentley was a greater man than many a millionaire who lives in luxury of which the 'Snowflake Man' never dreamed."

His friends and neighbors had understood him after all.

NORTH IDAHO WEATHER REVIEW AND LONG-RANGE OUTLOOKS

As of this Thursday, Jan. 12 writing, we haven't seen a plowable snowfall in the region in nearly two full months, since just after Veterans' Day, this despite some colder temperatures. It was a frigid 14 degrees Wednesday morning, winter's coldest reading yet.

But, that is all going to change as the pesky high pressure ridge is showing signs of breaking down ... finally ... in the Pacific.

In the past 60 days, record snowfalls exceeding 20 feet in places have literally buried much of southeastern Alaska. Roofs have collapsed and fishing vessels have been iced in, including a Russian taker loaded with fuel oil. Temperatures in central Alaska have dipped at times to near minus-50 degrees, while we've enjoyed local readings in the mild mid 50s above zero.

I still believe that we will be colder than normal with greatly increased snowfalls between mid January and early to mid March. Stay tuned.

Cliff Harris is a climatologist who writes a weekly column for The Press. His opinions are his own. Email sfharris@roadrunner.com

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