At Audubon's annual Thanksgiving event, I casually mentioned to an elementary school teacher that I had been out earlier photographing the hoarfrost. This led to a conversation about the word and the fact that "hoarfrost" has showed up in a second-grade reading test. Many of the teachers in her school had never heard the word before. We pondered together where the word came from and what, exactly, did it mean? Our conversation sent me searching for the origins of the word.
"Hoar" can be traced to the Old English word "har," meaning gray, venerable, old. It is also associated with the old Norse word "harr" meaning gray-haired and old, the old Saxon "her" for distinguished, noble and glorious, and even the German "Herr," which is a title of respect.
It makes sense. Sometimes the feathery ice formations can resemble the gray beards of old men. Sometimes the formations are so intricately beautiful that words like "glorious" are quite appropriate.
Hoarfrost is shown on winterberry holly.
Photo by Jennifer Schlick
Frost fascinates me. We learn in school about the three phases of matter - solid, liquid and gas. We observe the phase changes with fascination as a solid ice cube melts into liquid water and then becomes a gas - water vapor - as we heat it up. Frost fascinates me because it skips a phase.
Frost forms as water vapor converts directly to solid ice when it comes into contact with a cold object on or near the ground, skipping the liquid phase. (Snowflakes are created in a similar way, except the ice crystals form around dust particles suspended in the sky.) When frost crystals grow beyond a fine white coating they earn the name hoarfrost.
As long as we're learning new words, let's throw deposition and sublimation into the mix. These are words that describe the transition between the gaseous and the solid states, without stopping at the liquid phase in between. The formation of frost or snow is deposition gas transforms directly to solid. Sublimation, on the other hand, is when the snow or ice converts directly to water vapor without becoming liquid first.
Do you ever hang your laundry out to dry in winter? If the temperatures are below freezing, the liquid water in the cloth will become frozen ice. Then with time the ice disappears. Where does it go? It sublimates.
In the west, people talk about the Chinook winds warm and dry that sweep down the east side of the Rockies, causing the snow to "disappear" through sublimation, rather than through melting. I've seen spring days here in Western New York when snow seemed to evaporate directly into the air without bothering to melt first.
Here at Audubon, we are in the middle of several phase changes. For example, thanks to the generosity of the Sheldon Foundation, we are updating our technology to keep pace with the times. In the end we will have new or updated computers, a networked copier/printer, new graphic design software, and a few new instructional gadgets. We can envision that new "phase state" when we are all happily efficient, processing our day-to-day tasks quickly so that we can get on to more creative projects.
Wouldn't it be sublime if we could magically find ourselves on the other side of the transition all equipment purchased and installed, all staff trained and efficient? Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could deposit ourselves on the other side, skipping the chaotic middle state when everything is fluid, changing, messy and the learning curve seems way too steep?
It doesn't seem fair that nature can do it, but we cannot. Still, we are grateful for the solace that nature provides. We will take a walk when the frustration mounts. We will be refreshed by the sights and sounds of the ponds and fields and woods. Perhaps we will get to see and contemplate hoarfrost or the sublimation of snow banks. And then we will be ready to tackle the next challenge.
The Audubon Center & Sanctuary is located at 1600 Riverside Road, one-quarter mile east of Route 62 between Jamestown and Warren. The trails are open from dawn to dusk daily. The center is open Mondays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. and Sundays from 1 p.m. until 4:30 p.m. Learn more by calling 569-2345 or by visiting jamestownaudubon.org.
Jennifer Schlick is program director at Jamestown Audubon.