Saturday, January 30, 2010

Chilly Adirondack Mornings and Frosted Window Panes

Last week we had several clear nights, where the stars spangled the heavens and a swelling crescent moon sailed across the skies. Each successive night was colder than the last, dropping from a mild 24 degrees Fahrenheit to a chilly -9 by the weekend. The air was still, and the world silent, except for the late night choruses of our resident coyotes. When dawn creeped over the mountain tops and crested the trees, my porch windows revealed an artistry that only Mother Nature could provide: fern frost.

I suspect that many of us simply grumble at the sight of frost on our windows, muttering under our breath while we scrape it off the windshield of the car so we can get to work without taking out other vehicles along the way. Despite the nuisance frost can cause (and the statement it makes about the insulation of your house), I think that most of us, at least once in our lives, have paused to take in the remarkable beauty of the graceful feathers that sweep across the glass. How delicate they are, how graceful, how fragile.

So I thought I’d take a cruise through the internet to figure out just how these icy delights are formed. After all, there must be some sort of magic behind these feathery shapes. It turns out to be a pretty simple matter, and the windows at my house make a perfect canvas.

First, you need a window. Not a fancy, schmancy energy efficient window (no worries about that at my house). A single pane of glass, poorly insulated, is just the ticket. Then you need a very cold night, the kind of night where there are no clouds, no wind, and the temperature plummets. The final ingredient is a moderately moist indoor environment. Install your cheap glass window so that one side is outside in the cold, and the other side is inside where it is moist. Turn off the lights and go to bed.

While you are sleeping, the magic begins. When cold air and warmer moist air clash (the surface of your window), moisture condenses out of the air, forming tiny droplets (like dew) on the adjacent surface, in this case the window glass. Chilling continues and these droplets freeze. More moisture condenses on top of these ice crystals, and then it freezes as well. This cycle repeats throughout the night, the fingers of ice growing as each layer is laid down. Small imperfections in the glass, scratches, or even dust (not in my house, cough, cough), can all influence the shapes made as the ice/frost forms.

The next morning you rise from your toasty warm bed and schlep out to the kitchen. As you contemplate breakfast and the need to walk the dog, you glance at the thermometer and shudder. Then you remember your experiment and you rush to your strategically-located window of cheap glass. Since the night remained cloudless, and you rose as with the sun, the firey orb is now sending its golden fingers to gild the crystalline edges of the feathery ferns etched across the window’s surface.

Is there any better way to start a day than to witness the ephemeral art the frost faeries left as a token of their goodwill?

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Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.



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