I groaned. Then I sighed. The Jeep was ice-bound.
I got home late in the dark, happy for my cloth top, mourning my dead heater. I parked in the dark of the driveway, my breath coming in puffs — the silence complete.
Next morning I emerged — late as usual — to find my Jeep sheathed in snow and the window a sheet of ice.
I pulled out my window scraper, paused a moment to mourn my lost gloves, then fell to work hacking at the ice on the window. Sliding on the cold, cracked seat, I said a little Jeep-starting prayer. Old Faithful sputtered and caught. That’s when I noticed the ice that had formed on the inside of the window.
The crystal shapes undulated across the slanted inner sheet of glass, like creatures from a science fiction movie. Here was a crystalline centipede — five inches long and made of diamonds. Here was a predator crystal, hungry in the absolute cold. There fled a lost soul. Here gleamed a flight of fancy.
Staring at the strange shapes, I reached for the gearshift. Instead, my chilled fingers closed on my camera, which perched on the passenger’s seat. Late to a management team meeting, I took the only reasonable course of action open to me.
I turned off the Jeep — and started photographing the ice creatures.
Of course, I have long admired ice — loved it really — for its many gifts. But I could not recall ever having seen it take such extravagantly beautiful forms.
Ice makes us possible, you see.
For starters, water expands when it turns into ice. That’s just weird. Take any normal liquid. Cool it down. The molecules chill, slow and settle until they drop into a crystal lattice. That’s why most liquids take up less space when they freeze. But water actually expands when it chills and settles into the six-sided hexagons of ice. The physics books talk about the bonds between the oxygen and hydrogen atoms that comprise each molecule of water. Maybe it also has something to do with water molecules having a positive charge at one end and a negative charge at another.
Net result, water expands when it freezes. That’s why ponds don’t freeze to the bottom, ice turns rocks into dirt and the oceans haven’t frozen solid — all good news for us.
Ice also regulates the climate — especially when it takes the form of the high, thin cirrus clouds stretched across the sky in sighs of beauty. Those wispy smears of clouds are composed of ice crystals — usually about three or four miles up. They’re usually about a mile thick — with maybe 30,000 ice crystals per gallon of air, chilled to about 22 degrees below zero. On any given day, these cirrus clouds shadow about 25 percent of the earth’s surface. They reflect about 9 percent of the heat that hits them from above, but trap about 50 percent of the heat radiating off the land beneath. As a result, they raise the temperature of the air in their shadow by about 18 degrees. One of the great uncertainties about climate change remains the response of these ice crystal clouds to rising temperatures, since other types of clouds have a net cooling effect.
As it happens, living things help produce the clouds that produce a climate that makes things so nice for living things. Turns out, pure water doesn’t actually freeze until the temperature gets down to 36 degree below zero. However, ice crystals readily form on a nucleus that has just the right shape. Things like bacteria floating around in the air therefore trigger ice crystal formation. In fact, bacteria probably evolved into just the right shapes to promote the formation of ice crystals that damage plants in a way that produces food for bacteria. Without the bacteria, dust and other bits of wind-blown debris we’d get little snow. That means the Colorado River would run dry most of the year and we’d have to abandon Arizona.
So I bobbed, leaned, squinted and dipped in the front seat in my effort to focus my long lens on the inside of the front window, an acolyte of ice.
Now seriously late, I forced myself to stop and restart the engine. Lurching out onto the dirt road leading to the highway, I figured I might still make the meeting. But the scene through the front window kept changing with the background. The riot of crystal creatures altered their nature completely when set against a backdrop of dark pines versus the now-startling blue sky. They shape-shifted again when a lance of sunlight penetrated the window, illuminating the writhing ice abstracts.
So the Jeep wandered drunkenly down the mercifully empty road, drifting from side to side as I focused on the inside of the window instead of the bend in the road. Every 100 feet, I stopped again and started frantically trying to capture the new configuration.
This continued until I reached the highway, where the sun shone full through the window. The ice creatures exploded into a radiant blaze of energy. I shuttered into the glare, as the photons shot out by a distant star bounced about in the crystalline structure of the ice crystals. Ironically enough, the sun made those photons by fusing hydrogen atoms — the same element that gave the ice its remarkable properties. The impact of those hurtling photons imparted so much energy that the ice reverted to liquid or sublimated directly into vapor.
Those creatures of eerie beauty vanished before my eyes, their piercing glory transformed into a damp smudge on the chipped window of a muddy Jeep.
I slipped into the management team meeting as quietly as can a clumsy man in mud boots. They all looked up.
“Glad you could make it,” said publisher John Naughton dryly.
“Oh. Yeah. Well. Uh. Working on a story,” I said, dancing in my mud boots.
And that, dear readers, is why I wrote this story.