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Snowflakes get their close-up, thanks to a Stony Brook camera

A new camera that captures individual snowflakes as

A new camera that captures individual snowflakes as they fall in real time is being used at Stony Brook University for the first time this year, just in time for the expected blizzard Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. The Multi-Angle Snowflake Camera (MASC) will be used by the School of Atmospheric and Marine Sciences to better understand the "microphysical evolution within East Coast winter storms," according to the school. Here is a collage of microscope images taken with the MASC from previous storms. The MASC captures in free-fall, so they are intact. Credit: Stony Brook University

A new camera at Stony Brook University that captures pictures of individual snowflakes during storm events could be the key to making future snowfall predictions more accurate.

The snowstorm currently hitting Long Island is the first big test for the university's Multi-Angle Snowflake Camera, installed last month on the roof of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said Brian Colle, professor of atmospheric science.

The camera takes photographs of snowflakes as they fall, allowing researchers to collect information on the type of flakes, how much moisture they contain and how fast they fall throughout a storm, he said.

That data will eventually help forecasters make more precise predictions about the amount of snowfall expected during snowstorms, Colle said.

"Some of that uncertainty is driven because we don't understand exactly what is falling out of the sky," Colle said.

The system, which is part of a three-year grant Stony Brook and North Carolina State University received last year from the National Science Foundation, consists of a cylinder with three cameras attached to it.

Infrared sensors determine when a snowflake is falling through the cylinder, allowing the device to capture three different images of the same snowflake as well as the speed at which it fell from the sky.

The device also will allow researchers for the first time to capture pictures of intact snowflakes, said Sandra Yuter, professor in the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at North Carolina State and Colle's collaborator on the project.

Previous pictures of snowflakes have been of those grown in a laboratory or caught on a surface, which collapses the structure of the flake, she said.

While the camera will yield plenty of information about this week's snowstorm, it will take data from several years of snowstorms in order to ultimately improve the forecast models, Yuter said.

"Despite the hardship the storm will obviously cause, I hope we can get some good science out of it, so in the future we can make more accurate predictions and so people can be better prepared as a result," she said.


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