Winter Revisited

It’s another Bellingham summer, my second since I moved here, and this one is even more glorious than the last.  It’s the Monday after a weekend spent doing everything one ought during a summer like this: blueberry picking (and subsequent pie baking), ice cream eating, swimming at Whatcom Falls Park, a cookouts under the stars.   On Sunday, I took a long bike ride out to Lummi Island to visit my good friends Travis and Angie on the old-fashioned reef-netting salmon boats where they work.  Nothing like watching harbor seals rile up fish on a blue sky day, surrounded by the hills of the San Juan Islands.

It’s actually been genuinely hot: tomatoes ripen, my pea vines turn brown, and my lettuces grow fantastic and bitter towers of green and red as they bolt in the sun.  To cool myself down on this hot afternoon, I was looking through some old photographs from this past winter, and remembered an interesting phenomenon that I observed in the Chuckanut Mountains.

It was a particularly cold day after many weeks of mist and rain, and my breath plumed in front of me as I hiked up the hill with my housemate, Eli, and our friend Eric, who was visiting from Montana.  There was no snow, but as we got higher, the air turned decidedly frosty, and we started noticing something odd growing up out of the rotting sticks and logs that were scattered on the forest floor.  Was it a slime mold of some sort?  A strange fungus?

Whatever it was, by the sheer force of its growth, it oftentimes had split the bark of its hosts in two, giving them the appearance of a frothy grin.  Other times, it was massive, and resembled a full and luxurious beard:

It was identified more decisively when touched: after being stroked by our warm fingers, it quickly disappeared. It was not a living thing, we discovered, but a bizarre and delicate formation of ice.

Known by many names, these great and curling crowns of ice begin formation when water soaks into both the natural vascular tissues of the branches, and those additional spaces carved out by wood-decayers.  The more rotted a log, oftentimes, the greater the icy plume that adorns it.  As the water in the wood freezes, it expands, pushing tendrils of ice out onto the surface.  When more water is absorbed, and subsequently frozen, the tendrils grow, hundreds of cold stalks that are sometimes as fine as hair.

The Pacific Northwest is a perfect place to witness such a phenomenon, as we have notoriously wet winters that often hover around or above the freezing point, allowing more water to be drawn up unfrozen before it is cold enough to solidify again.

Switzerland is another locale where this formation has been observed.  Gerhart Wagner and Christian Mätzler from the University of Bern believe that when the frost is extremely thin and fine, it is produced by wood-rotting fungi. As a fungi breaks down wood, it produces both water and carbon dioxide. When the water freezes, gas pressure from the CO2 pushes the ice out of the wood. The organic matter mixed up in the water also acts as a catalyst for freezing when the temperature hovers around 0°C, and can provide sustenance for small insects, which I also observed in clusters on a number of the logs that we passed.

As Eli, Eric and I emerged from the trees, we had a chance to gaze out over the mountains, and catch a bit of sun as it filtered through the high mist.  That meager sunlight was enough to melt the ice on all of the logs near the clearing; like the short bloom of the poppies on my stoop, these manes of ice are transient, delicate, and all the more intriguing for it.