Silk 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.
Each 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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35 thoughts on “SILK FROST: Strange Ice Formations on the Olympic Peninsula”
What a nice discovery! Thanks for sharing the pictures and information about Hair ice. I love that it is mostly just found in this region. Now I’m going to be keeping an eye out for it when I go hiking or on walks.
I’ll be looking for more of it as well. From what I’ve read, late autumn and early winter are the best times to see it, under the same conditions that bring widespread frost.
I learned something new today from your blog. And your photos revealed the delicate finery of this phenomenon. Happy New Year.
That’s astonishing! wow!
Whenever I see something new in nature, I am inspired to photograph it. Thank you!
It’s amazing how silky frost can look, and it’s even MORE amazing, that you’d captured it with your camera, it’s so beautiful and delicate too
It was wonderful to have it three days in a row, because it was so delicate that it was hard to work in such close proximity to it without harming the beauty.
Very interesting. Great capture of a rare event. Thanks for sharing!
You’re welcome. I love sharing my discoveries of nature.
never knew this! just another reason why the Olympic Peninsula is clearly a magical place.
I agree. The Olympic Peninsula is among my favorite places on earth, with its ancient forests, wildlife, rugged ocean shores, and high mountains.
Very cool! I have never seen ice formations of the like. I find the clarity of the black background does the best job emphasizing the waves of ice.
I agree, and I’m glad I had that inspiration on the second day. Without the background, I can show the setting; but with the background, I can emphasize the beauty.
Very cool! I had never heard of this phenomena before. I agree on a messy area. On my two acres I leave at least one acre wild for the birds and animals. I have lots a dead wood out at the creek. I’d love to get something as cool as hair ice. It’s great being able to photograph in the back yard.
Thank you, Carol. I have taken a lot of good photos in my yard, which is why I’ve never wanted to live in the city.
Wonderful and fascinating. I’ve never seen anything like that before. I especially like the clean and backlit photos. Thanks for sharing, and the research. An educational post!
I did the backlit photos on the second day, using a portable backdrop, with backlighting from a headlamp. It really brought out the beauty and detail. Thank you, Alexander.
Gorgeous shots of frost ribbons!
It’s a little more common than most people realize. I think our expanding urbanization and suburbanization has reduced how often we come in contact with it. There is a fairly showy wildflower from the eastern half of the USA below the Great Lakes that goes by the common name of Frostweed – Verbesina virginica. The stems on this species seem particularly suited to holding water and then allowing it to freeze in these lovely patterns.
Hi Eric, frost ribbons are a different phenomenon that don’t involve the fungal decomposition. I’ve never seen those frost ribbons, but I would love to photograph them as well. Thank you for your comment.
Absolutely fascinating and very, very beautiful! SO miss the beauty of the Olympic Peninsula–our family always loved that area.
Thank you, Aimee. It is really a special place, with more wildlife than in any place I’ve ever been, except for Yellowstone.
Fascinating, never had I seen this phenomenon before! Beautifully photographed so we can appreciate it! I still don’t get how the fungus does this, oh well!
It is apparently quite rare, requiring just the right combination of dead tree branch and fungus and temperature. Thank you for your nice comment.
Lovely, interesting formations!
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that is soo cool, it looks like a hairy fluff 😀
My husband and I were camping along the Skagit River at Rasar State Park this past weekend and were pleasantly surprised when we came across the ice formation. It was stunning! I’m grateful for your post and blog or else I’m afraid I would have never figured out what this was. As a fisheries and wildlife biologist, I thought I knew the treasures of the Pacific Northwest – truly there is so much more wonder and beauty! Thank you so much for your pictures and research!
This came as a complete surprise to us as well, and isn’t it wonderful to still be surprised?
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This morning I discovered the same thing on a walk in the woods near our house. We live just east of Kelso, WA. I thought it was some sort of fiber tangled on a branch. I started taking pictures and then touched it. It melted in my hand! I googled frost formations on branches and your photos and explaination popped up. Thanks for sharing!
Isn’t it an amazing phenomenon? I’m glad you had a chance to experience it.