Snow crystals, which form by vapor deposition, occasionally come in contact with supercooled cloud droplets during their formation and descent. When this occurs, the droplets adhere and freeze to the snow crystals in a process known as accretion. During the early stages of accretion, discrete snow crystals exhibiting frozen cloud droplets are referred to as rime. If this process continues, the snow crystal may become completely engulfed in frozen cloud droplets. The resulting particle is known as graupel. Light microscopic investigations have studied rime and graupel for nearly 100 years. However, the limiting resolution and depth of field associated with the light microscope have prevented detailed descriptions of the microscopic cloud droplets and the three-dimensional topography of the rime and graupel particles. This study uses low-temperature scanning electron microscopy to characterize the frozen precipitates that are commonly known as rime and graupel. Rime, consisting of frozen cloud droplets, is observed on all types of snow crystals including needles, columns, plates, and dendrites. The droplets, which vary in size from 10 to 100 gm, frequently accumulate along one face of a single snow crystal, but are found more randomly distributed on aggregations consisting of two or more snow crystals (snowflakes). The early stages of riming are characterized by the presence of frozen cloud droplets that appear as a layer of flattened hemispheres on the surface of the snow crystal. As this process continues, the cloud droplets appear more sinuous and elongate as they contact and freeze to the rimed crystals. The advanced stages of this process result in graupel, a particle 1 to 3 mm across, composed of hundreds of frozen cloud droplets interspersed with considerable air spaces; the original snow crystal is no longer discernible. This study increases our knowledge about the process and characteristics of riming and suggests that the initial appearance of the flattened hemispheres may result from impact of the leading face of the snow crystal with cloud droplets. The elongated and sinuous configurations of frozen cloud droplets that are encountered on the more advanced stages suggest that aerodynamic forces propel cloud droplets to the trailing face of the descending crystal where they make contact and freeze.
Additional publication details
Rime and graupel: Description and characterization as revealed by low-temperature scanning electron microscopy