The Local Wild: Nice Ice, Baby.

It’s often the common, less outstanding things in our lives we take for granted which end up being the most important. Take water, for instance. We have a lot of water here in Minnesota — and we’re darn proud of it! — and when our local wild enters its wintry stages all that water turns into a lot of snow and ice. We drive through it, around it, over it (hopefully not under it!). We scrape it, brush it, shovel it, and melt it away so that we, in turn, can get on our merry way. All the water we have in all its various forms is so everyday that we hardly take a second look or consideration.

But we really should, if only to be impressed by Creation once more.

Trickling-stream-unfrozen_Woken-J

A small stream remains liquid in temperatures well below water’s typical freezing point. Credit: Jessica Woken.

I was mystified the other day while watching my ground spring’s little rivulet ebb downhill toward our pond. Mystified because, well, I knew the waters temperature had reached freezing point — thermometers had dipped and stayed below 32°F days prior — yet, it wasn’t frozen. That moving water doesn’t freeze is common knowledge, but that simply begged the question: why doesn’t it?

Before we scratch that itch, I want to illustrate how water is nothing short of magnificent, specifically this property: that, in a solid state (ice), water floats upon itself. This is not a property unique to water, although it is rather rare in nature. Did you ever stop to consider that if ice didn’t float life as we know it would not be possible? It’s true!

Water is nothing short of magnificent, specifically this property: that, in a solid state (ice), water floats upon itself.

Imagine a world where ice sinks. In this world is a pond teaming with life. Then, imagine that water freezing bit by bit; the chunks of ice sink to the bottom of the pond as new ice forms on top. Repeat this until ALL the water is frozen. No water remains; just solid ice. Plants will die because they can’t live encapsulated in an icy tomb. Same for fish, frogs, crayfish, or other creatures that are food for predators like cranes, bear, eagles, and mink, so those prey die along with their associated predators. Even forgetting food altogether, animals don’t DRINK ice, so dehydration takes them even if they have food to eat. In this imaginary world where ice sinks, the food chain ends at the proverbial water level. That, in our real world, ice floats, keeping everything within water bodies safe and alive, really is very, very nice!

In regards to rivers and streams staying fluid, it’s what holds the ice crystal molecule together that keeps moving water liquid for longer: hydrogen bonds.

As molecular bonds go, the hydrogen bonds that convert liquid water into ice are relatively weak and can be broken by biological forces like motion or heat. Think of those hydrogen bonds like the static electricity holding a pair of balloons together, where the balloons represent water molecules: Sure, the static electricity will hold the balloons together if they hover in windless air, but once a breeze blows, they’ll easily separate, becoming “fluid”. The fast the wind moves, the stronger the static charge needs to be to hold the balloons together.

It’s a very crude explanation for something so complicated but, for purposes of understanding why our streams and rivers refuse to freeze when the rest of the wilderness is at a chilly standstill, it works.

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Resident ducks and swan eagerly await visitors at who will toss them some treats from the feed machine at Minnieska Park. Credit: Jessica Woken.

So, whether or not you want to get wrapped up in the complicated workings of water molecules when temperatures drop below 32°F, get out there and enjoy the trickling, rushing, splashing, and flowing of some of the liquid water features our spectacular (albeit, cold) local wild has to offer.

P.S. Another fun fact: University of Utah chemists declared in 2011 that, in just-right conditions, water really doesn’t HAVE to freeze until it reaches -55°F. Yikes! They called this “supercooled water”, and let’s hope we never have to find out for ourselves what is so “supercool” about -55°F! (Read more about it at: https://phys.org/news/2011-11-supercool-doesnt-.html.)


The Local Wild is a series of twice-monthly editorials published by the Cannon Falls Beacon. Many thanks to the editor for allowing me to share these articles on my personal page.

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