Beautiful Canadian snowflakes get U.S. stamp of approval

Posted On October 26, 2006

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Two very short-lived Canadians have been immortalized by the United States Postal Service in a newly issued series of stamps that will grace millions of pieces of American mail this Christmas.

Apparently covetous of one of its northern neighbour’s most abundant natural resources, the U.S. government agency selected two perfectly crystalline snowflakes from a frigid Ontario town for its special holiday stamp issue.

The stamp set, featuring the two “stellar” Canadian flakes alongside two bulkier specimens from Michigan and Alaska, was unveiled this month at a Washington ceremony attended by top postal officials and Kenneth Libbrecht, the California Institute of Technology crystals expert who captured the super-zoom photographic images of the “tiny ice sculptures” he calls “wonderful examples of nature’s art.”

Libbrecht said that “I thought that was kind of funny” when the U.S. Postal Service “didn’t seem to balk at putting Canadian snowflakes on U.S. stamps, although I’m glad I had some home-grown crystals for them to choose from, too.”

Libbrecht, who has published numerous research papers and five popular books featuring his magnified snowflake portraits, uses a custom-built, microscope-equipped camera to snap pictures of ice crystals collected on a wooden board during snowfalls and then transferred to glass slides with a small artist’s paintbrush.

He said he typically has one or two minutes to photograph an individual snowflake before it melts on the slide, unless temperatures are just below freezing. Then, he says, it’s a race against time and “you can’t breathe” or do anything that would generate heat before the image is captured. One of his favourite snowflake shooting sites is Cochrane, Ontario, the small town north of Timmins that produced the two Canuck flakes on the American stamp set.

“You get a lot of snow up there,” said Libbrecht, adding that the flakes in that part of the country “are these nice-looking, symmetrical crystals. It’s hard to get really nice crystals.”

Mark Saunders, a spokesperson with the U.S. Postal Service, said the snowflakes on the stamps were chosen “to reflect their beauty and variety” regardless of national origin.

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