Archive for January 2014

SILK FROST: Strange Ice Formations on the Olympic Peninsula

January 7, 2014

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic PeninsulaSilk Frost, known more widely as Hair Ice, emerging like fine hair from alder branches; the tiny water droplets show the ice beginning to melt as the temperature rises (an alternate theory is that it is condensation from the photographer’s breathing on this cold morning)

Overnight our Olympic Peninsula skies cleared and the temperature plunged to 28°F. That isn’t very cold by midwestern standards, where this winter is bringing temperatures and wind chills far south of -20°F, but it was cold enough to create something extraordinary and beautiful that I have never seen before.

I walked down the hill to our house, and saw a bright white patch about the size of a discarded Kleenex, which is what I thought it was and I wondered who had been despoiling our yard. I went over to retrieve it, and discovered that it was actually a patch of ice that seemingly sprouted from the ground and looked to be made up of fine hairs of ice. I was curious what it was, and I looked around to see if there were any others. There was a bigger blob of the stuff at the end of an old branch, and then I saw a couple more.

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic PeninsulaEach of the above formations was growing from alder wood

This was a cold morning, so there was frost on the Sword Ferns and grasses around our house, but frost has an entirely different look from this hairy ice. I showed Karen, and we agreed that all these patches of hairy ice were sprouting from old branches that were either on the ground or sticking up in the air. It was distinctly different from the frost flowers we’ve seen emerging from the frozen ground around here, which are thicker and look like they are extruded.

I photographed the formations, then used the internet to try and discover more about them. It turns out that these formations are quite rare, and have mostly been observed on the Olympic Peninsula and nearby Vancouver Island, and in parts of Europe. The consensus name is Hair Ice, though the names Frost Beard, Ice Wool, Feather Frost, Silk Frost (my favorite), and Cotton Candy Frost have also been used.

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

I don’t keep my yard very neat, especially in the wild patches beyond the mowed lawn and planted rhododendrons. If an alder branch falls in the forest, I’m not likely to hear it and will usually just let it be; as a naturalist, I prefer the chaos of the natural forest to the tidy landscaping around most homes. And that chaos of fallen branches is key to growing Hair Ice.

All of the Hair Ice around here was sprouting from old and decaying branches of Red Alder, a brittle tree that sheds body parts whenever we get snow or freezing rain. But where could the water be coming from that forms these hairs, which look to be as fine as human hair? This has actually been a mystery for a long time, though a German scientist described a possible association between fungus and Hair Ice in 1918. That scientist, Professor Alfred Wegener, became better known for his imaginative and long-controversial theory of Continental Drift, which has become a keystone theory to understanding the geological history of the Earth.

In 2008, two European scientists published a paper called “Hair Ice on Rotten Wood of Broadleaf Trees–a Biophysical Phenomenon.” In this paper they described their tested theory of how Hair Ice is formed. It turns out that fungus is indeed the key, and the Olympic Peninsula is renowned for its fungi. As we all know, fungus in fallen branches is responsible for recycling the nutrients in the wood, and this forest citizen takes its recycling responsibility very seriously. The fungus sets up a factory deep inside the branch, where it sets about decomposing carbohydrates and lipids–just as humans attempt to do with their New Year’s resolutions.

The fungus feasts on the nutrients, leaving water and carbon dioxide gas as waste products (hey, I would drink the carbonated water, but what do I know in comparison with a fungus?). And this is the key: the carbon dioxide forms pressure within the decaying twig that pushes the water outward through microscopic openings in the wood called rays. When the supercooled water meets the freezing temperatures outside, the water freezes into a tiny crystaline structure. Then, as the crystal is pushed by the water behind it, and the emerging water subsequently freezes, hair-like crystalline structures form that appear to be finer than the diameter of human hair. Together, the phenomenon looks a bit like white hairs emerging from an older person’s scalp–though I wish I could sprout that much hair from my bald head.

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

We had a stretch of three days of clear nights and freezing temperatures, My photography activities on the first morning had destroyed the fragile formations, and I wasn’t quite satisfied with the pictures, so I hoped to see the phenomenon repeated on the next morning. I awoke to 26°F temperatures, went outside, and saw new Hair Ice at each of the places it had been the day before. I spent a couple more hours photographing, until temperatures rose above freezing and the ice began to melt. The next day, temperatures went down to about 28° overnight, and I repeated the process; once again, the Hair Ice showed up in exactly the same spots. It was wondrous to see something entirely new to us.

Living here on a small patch of forest on the Olympic Peninsula has taught me so much. I’ve seen Flying Squirrels coming to our bird feeders and entering our birdhouses. We have Mountain Beavers living in burrows amongst our ferns; though we’ve never seen one, we see the neatly clipped fern fronds outside their burrows (these are a Pacific Northwest mammal not closely related to the regular Beaver). Last spring I photographed three kinds of salamanders that were living in rotten wood around our property (thanks again to my messy naturalist’s aesthetic). I’ve photographed Bald Eagles, River Otters, Douglas Squirrels, Black-tailed Deer, Western Screech-Owls, and numerous other species here. The gifts of wild land continue to be a source of inspiration in our lives.

The Bigleaf Maple and Red Alder and Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar forest here has taught me a lot, and I like to keep it as wild as possible as a thank you to all the creatures who call this place home. The Silk Ice reminded me once again of how nature continues to amaze and delight.

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

Hair Ice Formed on Dead Red Alder Branch on Olympic Peninsula

For more information about Hair Ice, here are two sources, though for the latter you will need to know German, though an Abstract is in English:

http://my.ilstu.edu/~jrcarter/ice/diurnal/wood/

http://www.iap.unibe.ch/publications/download/3152/de/

UPDATE: About a month later, there have been three more times when Silk Ice has appeared on the same branches in my yard as before; in each case, the overnight temperature dipped to the mid to upper 20s. On two of the days, the formations were well-developed and I took new photographs, but on the other day, there was wind and I think that most of the ice had sublimated away, leaving only one patch hugging the ground, where the wind couldn’t get to it.

On another day, the conditions would seem to have been perfect, with no wind and temperatures below freezing, yet no ice developed. The problem was, the temperature had dipped to 19°F, which was apparently too low for the fungal decomposition to proceed, so water and carbon dioxide could not be produced.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

ON THE WING: Rediscovering the Magic of Flight

January 3, 2014

Wing of a Boeing 757 and Sunset Clouds over the Great Plains

Yes, it was cramped. The five hour after Christmas flight from Detroit to Seattle was packed full, with not a seat to spare. There was a baby crying whenever we changed altitude, the audio wasn’t working on the plane’s channels, and the coffee maker was out of commission. At least I got two, count them, two little packets of pretzels!

The young woman next to me slept through four hours of the flight, but woke up brushing her leg when something wet and cold spilled on her (yes, I apologized for knocking over my water when I was trying to shift my cramped legs!). All in all, this was a typical flight these days, though we all have such low expectations that it really wasn’t that bad.

Wing of a Boeing 757 High Above Thick Clouds over the Great Plai

On the other hand, on this trip I selected a window seat so that I could look out at the passing landscape; and my wife took the window seat right in front of me, so that she could look out and also avoid having me spill a drink on her. I promised I wouldn’t kick her seat if she promised not to recline. So, we had a truce.

Cloudscape Viewed from Above During Flight over Great Plains

Snowy Pattern on the Great Plains Viewed from Above

Edge of a Cloud Bank Over a Snowy Farm Landscape

Cloudscape Viewed from Above During Flight over Great Plains

I slept through the takeoff, as I always do. My mother used to say that it wasn’t sleep at all–that I passed out because of a terror of flight, but I don’t think that is the case. There is something about the gentle vibration and noise of the jet engines that somehow reminds me of a lullaby, and I drift gently into the netherworld of dreams, awakening again only when I reach 36,000 feet, or my wife pokes me to say that the free pretzels have arrived. Or sometimes I awaken with an embarrassing loud snort that probably sends my seatmates into mental giggles, though they carefully avert their eyes.

On this flight we left the winter landscape of Michigan behind, and I woke up over Wisconsin or Minnesota, based upon the prairie landscape below. We were high above the clouds, which formed an intermittent flat layer far below, so it was only a thin layer of atmosphere between us and deep space, and only a thin layer of aluminum between our purported discomfort and the -60°F and 570 mph winds inches away.

Wint of Boeing 757 over a Thick Blanket of Clouds

Wing of a Boeing 757 and Sunset Clouds over the Great Plains

It was an afternoon flight, and crystal clear. Sometimes there were gaps in the clouds and I could see the pattern of snow on hills and the straight scars of roads and the lake that was shaped like a snowman. Mostly it was just clouds, billowy and feathering far below. As we zoomed west, I started using my camera’s zoom to take pictures of the clouds and the Boeing 757’s wing. I like having the wing in my pictures, because it adds a graphic element that has scale and interest. Also, if it ever catches fire, I should be able to get a great photo of it!

Farther west, high above the northern plains and Rocky Mountains and sagebrush steppe, we sailed on. Clouds covered it all, but the clouds were putting on a great show as we chased the sunset. It started with a hint of gold in the clouds; then vivid orange as the sun sank below the horizon. Finally, at deep dusk the sky was the soothing blue of twilight, with purple clouds lighting up below, as if we were in a spacecraft orbiting Jupiter. It was spectacular.

Wing of a Boeing 757 and Sunset Clouds over the Great Plains

Wing of a Boeing 757 and Sunset Clouds over the Great Plains

Cloudscape after Sunset During Boeing 757 Flight over Great Plai

Wing of a Boeing 757 and Sunset Clouds over the Rocky Mountains

Wing of a Boeing 757 and Sunset Clouds over the Rocky Mountains

Wing of a Boeing 757 Descending into Twilight during Approach to

Sailing over the Cascade Crest, I spotted two familiar landmarks: the cone of Mt. Adams, where we had hiked last Labor Day weekend, and Mt. Rainier, covered with a close-fitting garment of clouds. As we closed in on Seattle, we saw the lights of hundreds of cars crossing the floating bridges over Lake Washington and recognized roads and parks we had explored.

Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier with Boeing 757 on Approach to SeattleMt. Adams and Mt. Rainier on the horizon

Coming in over Lake Washington on Final Approach to Seattle

Coming in over Lake Washington on Final Approach to Seattle

Coming in over Lake Washington on Final Approach to Seattle

Final Approach to Sea-Tac Airport at Night

Final Approach to Sea-Tac Airport at Night

When we landed, I realized that I had taken well north of 100 photographs on this trip, and had spent most of the trip gazing out at the passing landscape. It reawakened my love of seeing the landscape from above, which is an astounding thing for a creature of Earth to see. This is as close as I will ever get to space travel, and it was wonderful.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website or go to my Flickr Photostream.