The Season of Ice

Winter in southern Ontario usually lasts four to five months. It brings darkness and freezing temperatures that drive some people to warmer southern climates, and keep others indoors until they have to venture into the cold out of necessity. Winter enthusiasts, in contrast, look forward to the cold temperatures. Every snowfall creates a new world. And cold days bring ice in almost endless varieties.

On still lakes and ponds, very cold temperatures can create a smooth, glass-like ice surface marred only be air bubbles and fine cracks; when the conditions are right, short-lived snow stars and flowers will blossom on these dark, frozen surfaces.

Rivers can freeze over entirely if it’s cold enough. But if it’s not quite cold enough, or if the flow is too fast, only the river’s edges will freeze; the moving water will shape and sculpt the shoreline ice into distinctive shapes and patterns that change from moment-to-moment as they are filled in, washed over and broken off by the moving water.

In ponds exposed to the warmth of the sun, ice can melt at the surface and refreeze into rounded, soft, organic shapes. Bits of the forest – fallen leaves, seeds, branches and soil – blow or wash in and become entombed. In the shade of a forest, where the sun barely touches the surface, pond ice can take crystalline, hard-edged, almost other-worldly forms. Close inspection reveals constellations of tiny air bubbles, and the reflections of trees and sky.

When daytime temperatures start rising as winter draws to a close, the hard, clear ice of winter will turn into cloudy, bubbly, soft spring ice. At the edges of rivers, the ice disappears quickly, washed away by the warming waters. However, on small frozen ponds deep in the forest, ice can survive in thin, delicate structures long after daytime temperatures are consistently above freezing. As the ice slowly melts on these ponds, vegetation begins to emerge; some frozen plants from last year seem as green and healthy as if they’ve been growing in the ice. New plants will start pushing their way through the rotten ice.

In sun-warmed ponds, ice melts from the shore towards the centre, gradually exposing the pond’s bottom at the shoreline. Tiny air bubbles that form on the edges of melting ice will form bright borders in the sunlight. Just before it melts completely, bits of rotten pond ice will break off and float away in a trail of bubbles before merging into the pond’s water.

The season of ice will return again next year. As long as water comes back to the same rivers, lakes and ponds, ice will form there. But ice is ephemeral. The shapes, textures and patterns on offer next year will be similar, yet wholly new.

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