February 29, 2024

Snowflake Hunters of Antarctica – SWR Wissen

Engineer Thomas Hoffmann and physicist Helen Hoffmann capture and preserve snowflakes. Its collection includes Arctic and Antarctic flakes.

Thomas Hofmann has an unusual hobby: he works on preserving snowflakes in the workshop of the Neumayr Station in Antarctica. His mission was successful.

We are the only ones in the world who have preserved snowflakes from Arctic and Antarctic winters. There is no one else in the whole world.

Catching snowflakes as a hobby

The engineer spent the winter in the ice at the research station with his wife, scientist Helen Hoffman. She knows the material of ice and snow well from her research. But catching and keeping a single piece of ice was something new.

Helen and Thomas Hoffmann preserve ice crystals.

You kind of need a hobby there. And what can you bring with you from Antarctica? You are not allowed to bring penguins with you. And what is there? A pile of snow.

Glue experiments for preservation

There was enough time and equipment needed in the form of special glue, a cold -40 degree work surface, and plexiglass. So, Thomas Hofmann had no problem starting with simple experiments in the station's workshop, but then…

Then I escalated a bit about the whole thing. I mixed different adhesives so I could print the snowflakes more accurately, which is working well now. So it got out of hand and became very complicated.

Glue plays an important role

The immortal snowflake is about the size of a match head and can look very different – ​​no two snowflakes are identical. The basic preservation technique has been known since the 1960s: a special glue hardens around the frozen snowflake, which evaporates very slowly – leaving behind a clear imprint.

Size Comparison: Snowflake vs. Matchstick (Photo: Press Office, Hoffman 2021-23)

A snowflake is approximately the size of a match head. However, individual snowflakes are very different.

The project is now called Cryosity, which translates into German as a combination of the terms ice and curiosity. For example, part of the project is 200,000-year-old Antarctic ice – preserved and displayed in the form of a light installation that makes the microstructure of the ice core visible.

The bridge between science and art in Antarctica

Helen and Thomas Hoffmann describe the project as a bridge between the hard realities of climate research and the fleeting beauty of nature.

Arctic snowflake.  Collected during a MOSAiC expedition near the North Pole.  (Photo: Press Office, Hoffman 2021-23)

Researchers believe that snowflakes are a symbol of how quickly and fragile our planet is.

There is a complete data set for every snowflake we have. But no one can do anything with that. Which is exactly why I tried to portray her and Helen in some way. That you can also take a look at what's actually going on there? Where does the data actually come from for climate research?

Instructions for keeping snowflakes at home

If you want to preserve the snowflake for yourself next time it snows, it's best to use a brush. This makes it easy to transfer the captured chip onto a piece of glass. This is followed by a drop of supercold glue and another piece of glass on top. After two days in the refrigerator, the snowflake should keep forever.

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