Seeing as how today…this morning actually… we are still frozen in the polar vortex here on Haida Gwaii, I think I’ll take advantage of the topical opportunity to tell you about another winter anomaly that I came across recently… entirely by chance.
It’s always inspiring to be wandering around in the forest and stumble upon things that startle, surprise, amaze. At my age, I find those OMG moments even more of a world-class thrill than they once were, and I barely have to leave home to find them.
Even in a time when we fear so much for nature and the wild, a trek into the forest nearby reveals grand archipelagos of life-affirming discovery. The mildest curiosity can reveal new reefs of understanding to haul up onto and look around to see just how creative and astoundingly innovative the natural world is.
Taking a walk is always a good idea. And I often do… into the forest at Spirit Lake in Skidegate where the uphill trail is gravelled and graded and a good morning’s exercise.
The forest path follows alongside, and wooden bridges cross over, a fast-moving creek as it cascades down from Spirit Lake toward the nearby ocean shore. The orchestrated leitmotifs of falling water fade in and out of conscious hearing as the path wends its way upwards. Pale winter sunlight slants through the branches of the cedar, spruce and hemlock forest, making the shadows deeper and bluer on the forest floor of last year’s leaves and fallen branches. The ferns flourish everywhere alongside the trail and upward on the side hills.
Light and dark make dramatic contrasts here where shadows and shades dance in the winter blast of north-easterly wind.
So it was a small but vivid patch of purest white lying upon the greys and browns of decaying leaves and rotting branches beside the trail as I made my way downhill that drew my attention. I stopped and looked at it, and then got down on my hands and knees and looked at it again because it seemed so odd, so white, and so still lying there. Like a tiny shroud on the corpse of a tiny shrew, to tell the truth. Was it a fungus, a mold of some kind? Had somebody spilled something here? Had some kind of fibre or hair become caught up or entangled in the branch on the ground?
I smelled it, and it smelled as pure as snow, although there was no snow at all on the ground on this frigid February day.
I picked up the branch on which the white silky “something” was attached and puzzled away some more. And eventually I touched it with my fingertip and it melted. This delicate structured formation was … ice! On my warm fingertip the graceful threads of white transformed themselves from ice to water instantly and the tactile sensation was as gentle and delicate as a melting snowflake.
Well, that was my first step on this little voyage of discovery. And it was no more than noticing enough to take a photo or two, and continue on my way home to enjoy a hot cup of tea.
It wasn’t until a week or two later, when I was cruising around the WWW on the subject of frozen lakes singing that I happened to find this.
All of a sudden I was excited to see that I had stumbled on something unusual, fascinating (to a lot of people, mostly scientists) and that there was a whole wellspring of knowledge associated with this small, beautiful but humble manifestation of ice.
The delicate formation of the winter morning was something called hair ice and here is how Jan Thornhill in her science blog describes it:
“Though you might think at first glance that hair ice is some kind of peculiar frost – it’s not. Frost forms when moisture in the air freezes on objects. Hair ice, on the other hand, starts from the inside and moves outwards. Moisture in a stick or twig is exuded through minute pores on the surface, and when this moisture hits humid sub-zero air the result is very fine filaments of ice that can grow up to five centimeters in length – filaments that look just like hair. It’s an uncommon phenomenon, and not just because weather conditions must be absolutely perfect. Here’s the real glitch: the appearance of hair ice seems to be dependent on, of all things, fungi.”
She continues, “Recently though, Gerhart Wagner and Christian Mätzler from the University of Bern …theorize that the living mycelium of various fungi within the wood (i.e. Exidia glandulosa or Tremella mesenterica) continues to metabolize at near freezing temperatures, producing heat and gases that force moisture outwards. When this moisture escapes through pores and comes into contact with humid below-freezing air, hair ice grows.”
So there you have it…what I had discovered was a wonderful, complex, ephemeral revelation of ice caught in its own perfect moment in an ordinary winter morning.
For me, a life-time first for my Life-Long List of Firsts! And I didn’t even know I was missing it, until I came tripping along that trail on a February morning.
There are many other sources of information about hair ice to be found on the WWW. But one of the coolest is this set of pages by Dr. James Carter, a former professor of geography-geology at Illinois State University who, in his retirement, has taken up the study of ice formations. He has put together a set of amazing papers, with lots of photographs and more information sources about frost and ice. Here is the link.