Icicles, frosted cobwebs, snow, hail, sleet, we’re used to seeing all of these when the temperature starts to dip, but ice is a lot more versatile than that. Under certain conditions, from wind to temperature to altitude, ice can form all manner of unusual shapes, either in isolation or en masse.

Ice Ribbons

If you’ve ever been out walking in the woods on a cold day, you might well have seen this strange phenomenon. It’s also referred to as rabbit ice, ice wool, or a few other different, comparable terms. It happens when the air hits freezing temperatures before the ground does. When this happens, the sap from certain plants will freeze and expand, causing water to draw out and freeze when it meets their air. Resultantly, you get these thin, hairlike strips of ice, which vary in consistency depending on what type of plant they’ve grown from. They can also be seen extruding from metal fences, and it’s not exactly known how these form, but it’s likely something to do with moisture cooling on the inside of the posts.

Pancake Ice

 
Img source: cnn.com

Seeing a layer of ice over the surface of a river or stream isn’t uncommon, but the current is still a factor, and sometimes it can act on the ice in unusual, intriguing ways. Pancake, or pan ice forms when ice meets the eddy and starts to break up. Given the nature of the current, the broken pieces will spin around until they are given a circular shape. These thin plates can be as small as a foot in diameter, or as large as 2 or 3 metres. As they spin, they will often pick up a layer of slush around the edges, turning them into what’s known as a hanging dam.

Frost Blossoms

 
Img source: albayan.ae

Almost resembling those crystal gardens you used to get as a Christmas present from some random uncle or aunt that you hardly ever saw, these little deposits of ice form on the surface of seas or lakes after they freeze. In order for them to form, the air needs to be colder than the surface of the water, and very dry. The air will then pull moisture from the icy surface, and the weight of the water vapour discharges by crystallising. These blossoms are often very salty, causing large colonies of bacteria to flourish inside them. In the arctic, it’s not uncommon to see big fields of frost blossoms.

Penitentes

These spires of ice can only form at high altitude, and they’re most commonly found in the Andes, hence the Spanish name, which refers to their resemblance to a crowd of people kneeling in penance. I don’t see it, personally; perhaps the higher altitude makes people hallucinate, or maybe it’s the proximity to God. Sometimes getting up to 4 metres tall, they form as a result of sublimation, as parts of the ice turn directly into vapour without ever melting. The rate of the process causes the ice which stays frozen to form these shapes. The direction of the sun plays a significant role in formation, and as such they tend to lean in the direction of the rays.

Ice Hummocks

 
Img source: wherecoolthingshappen.com

These beautiful hunks of sapphire ice are found in various locations in the Arctic Circle, but perhaps the most famous example is on the frozen surface of Lake Baikal. During March, increased wind, sunlight and changes in the temperature cause the ice to crack and shift, forming big hummocks. Baikal has the clearest water in the world, and this, combined with unequal pressures in the ice, causes it to take on a glassy, turquoise appearance. They can stretch on for miles, permeating the fine layer of snow just above, creating a spectacular, alien landscape.

Snow Rollers

If you’re lucky, you might have seen these before after a heavy snowfall. They look almost like big, snowy hay bales, and you could be forgiven for thinking they were manmade, but they aren’t. Under very specific wind conditions, chunks of snow can be blown across the ground, gradually picking up more mass as they roll, until they eventually become too heavy to move any further. Most don’t get much larger than the size of a shoe or tire, but they can sometimes get bigger than a car. Unlike snowballs, they have a cylindrical shape, since they roll in one consistent direction. Just to add to the effect, the weaker inner layers can easily break away if the wind changes, causing them to become hollow tunnels.

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop. 

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