Ice flowers in Shakerag Hollow

The temperature dropped to minus five last night (minus twenty for disciples of Anders Celsius), the coldest that I’ve seen in Sewanee. I took a walk in Shakerag Hollow this morning to see how the woods were faring in this unusual chill. I’ve never experienced such silence here. The quiet was punctuated by woodpeckers drilling meager breakfasts from high in the canopy and trees occasionally snapping out gunshot sounds as their wood shattered. No sign of wrens, titmice, chickadees. The forest floor was mostly clear. Only a few deer tracks. Most birds and mammals are in hunker-down mode.

Amazingly, given the cold, the springs were still running. This flowing water created some beautiful ice formations on the rocks all around. When water vapor rises from the stream, it hits cold, dry air. This is an unstable mix, ripe for an encounter with a pointy nucleation site: an icy strand of moss or rock edge. Once they get started, these crystals build on themselves, growing “flowers” from the air. An icy foreshadow of the spring ephemerals? The largest ones are a couple of inches across. Similar formations are found in polar seas and host very unusual communities of bacteria.

So welcome to Tennessee, Polar Vortex. Here are your blooms:


37 thoughts on “Ice flowers in Shakerag Hollow

  1. Lucy Keeble

    David, these are absolutely beautiful images. Thank you for braving the elements and taking these and sharing them with us. I can only imagine how cold you were.
    Happy New Year,

  2. Kat Z.

    Thanks for trekking out into the frigid cold to bring pix of those beautiful crystals to our armchairs by the fire. The photos are tempting me to venture out so that I can see such blooms in person.

  3. Robley Hood

    Thanks for this post, David. I have just come in from my own ramble around Lake Cheston, which itself is abloom. Lovely weather we’re having (except for what it does to one’s fingers, toes, and camera lens, that is).

  4. mefurr

    Beautiful post and photos! I spent the early morning hours checking the fingers and toes of the animals at AWARE for frostbite. (We do provide heat lamps and bring many of our charges indoors). Thankfully, all was well. Lots of birds were active in the parking lot and at our feeders, but then, we had a balmy six degrees down here!

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Glad to hear that all’s well. Our animals are OK, but not happy about this turn of the weather. Sarah’s been blanketing and piling on the bedding, especially for the older animals.

      Here’s to the thaw!

  5. Esther Miller

    We’re in the northern Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with a flowing spring on our property. I will now have to go out first thing in the morning to see if we have any ice flowers. Thanks for the wonderful photos.

  6. Elliott Jones

    My senior year at Sewanee (1980), the temperature dropped to the low single digits (F) one calm, windless night. A few days before, Lake Cheston had been only partially frozen over–surely the rest had frozen over during that cold night. Trudging alone through crunchy snow to the lakeshore, I found the surface was frozen smooth as glass. Unfortunately, I had no skates, but the newly formed ice may not have held my weight anyway. But broken icicles from a pavillion served as projectiles, which shattered satisfyingly on impact with the glassy surface; the pieces skimmed frictionlessly in all directions until reaching the shore, or the rough previously frozen, snow-covered sections. The eerie ring of the sliding ice pierced the still winter air and brought sublime, unforgettable delight.

      1. Elliott Jones

        Thanks, Dr. Haskell. That’s fantastic (as are your photos and book, BTW). Looks like they had fun making that video. I’ll have to share it on FB.

  7. Tom Ramsey

    Fascinating and beautiful! I’ll bet the walk through Abbo’s Alley would’ve been spectacular, too. I never recall it being below zero during my four years there in the late ’70’s. There was talk, then, of global cooling and a developing ice age…


    Mary, this is the guy who wrote The forest Unseen, Also meant to say that Lake. Erie is almost frozen over, so there will be much less lake effect from that way. C



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