As it turns out water is fairly common in the universe, but liquid water is something else entirely. Liquid water is special. In many settings in the solar system (and probably elsewhere in the universe), water acts more like a rock than like the liquid we know and love. The last week or two in Vermont gave us a small taste of what that might be like.
Earlier this month I described a cold snap in Vermont. The cold snap was followed by a thaw, but after the thaw the cold returned. For about a week temperatures varied from 15 above to 19 below zero, and averaged around zero or a bit above. This is nothing particularly unusual for central Vermont, but it has been a while since we’ve seen a week like that.
The coldest morning was beautiful but eerie. As temperatures hovered around -16F, and a solid inversion socked into the valleys, steamy little exclamation points of cloud hung over every warm point, and the open water in fast-moving rivers seemed to boil with steam and ice fog. The sun glinted through the ice crystals in the air, adding a glare to everything but offering no warmth.
Where the water was moving too fast to freeze rafts of frazil ice formed, that resembled the black rock that can be seen on moving lava flows.
I wonder if this is similar to what it looks like on Europa when liquid water erupts to the surface (though a google search indicates that these volcanos are actually mostly erupting steam.) Mars might also be a candidate. If briny water does occasionally flow on mars, I wonder if it still forms frazil ice and steams in the sparse atmosphere. Hopefully one day we will witness such an event, at least through the ‘eyes’ of a robot.
Amazingly, there are photos of frost on Mars. Here on Earth an extended period of cold leads to very beautiful frost formations on windows.
We also found some neat crystalline formations near Poultney, Vermont:
We also found interesting terrace formations on a heavily frozen brook (whimsically called ‘Endless Brook’). Apparently water had backed up in the creek and flowed on top of the ice, refreezing and making these incredible formations:
Some of the ice appeared to be at least a foot thick.
Of course, one of the special things on Earth that is not the case on other planets in the Solar System is an atmosphere rich in oxygen (a byproduct of photosynthesis). All this oxygen allows us to make raging bonfires to keep us warm even on subzero nights. It’s quite a sensation to be bombarded with heat on one side of your body while the other side is pelted with frigid cold… but as long as you keep rotating, you can keep warm by a big fire even when temperatures drop below zero.
Looking forward, Vermont is about to experience very changeable weather. Right now it is around 29 degrees with freezing drizzle. Tomorrow the temperature will shoot up to around 50, bringing heavy rain, maybe even thunderstorms, and then the day after it will drop back below freezing (and probably stay that way for the next week at least). Unfortunately this means a loss of the nice snow we got yesterday, but it may break up the ice in the rivers and lead to some interesting hydrology.
For a description of even more extreme cold, in icy northern Minnesota, see this blog post by fellow Field Naturalist-Ecological Planning graduate Rachel.