As Cold as Ice

Screenshot, today’s weather forecast in Ontario

Tip of the iceberg. Skating on thin ice. As cold as ice. Ice in your veins. For the most part, the form of water or precipitation known as “ice” doesn’t connote good things.

Some people, and some animals, feel differently. Bartenders, for example. Ice-cream manufacturers. And as famous marine biologist Sylvia Earle so eloquently put it,

“For humans, the Arctic is a harshly inhospitable place, but the conditions there are precisely what polar bears require to survive – and thrive. ‘Harsh’ to us is ‘home’ for them. Take away the ice and snow, increase the temperature by even a little, and the realm that makes their lives possible literally melts away.”

Star-like patterns on a frozen pond – photo by E. Jurus

Here in Ontario we see ice quite often. It makes lovely patterns on ponds and rivers, and is the essential ingredient for skating rinks. But today many of us are waiting to see what happens when a ‘Colorado low’ sweeps across our province tomorrow, beginning with snow and changing into ice pellets as the night wears on. Hubby and I live in an area that’s expected to get four cm of ice, quite a thick coating, and is at high risk for power outages.

We’re not overly worried. If we do lose power, we have lots of candles, a wood-burning fireplace in our rec room with a Heatilator fan system that can heat our entire house if needed, and a gas cook-top in our kitchen that can be lit with a match.

Winter’s ice coats late-hanging leaves on a Japanese maple – photo by E. Jurus

Personally, I love storms. I grew up in Northern Ontario where they’re very common, and I think that’s where I developed an appreciation for being cozily inside while watching Mother Nature wreak havoc outside. My hubby isn’t as big a fan, but we’ve been in so many weather events on our travels that we’ve become experts, to some extent, at riding them out.

While we wait to see what happens with this one, I thought we’d take a look at ice, the paradox of its beauty vs its dangers, and how it’s been used so effectively in storytelling.

“When the wires are all down and your heart is covered with the snows of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, then, and only then, have you grown old.” Samuel Ullman

There are different classifications of ice-form precipitation, from ice pellets (also called sleet), that are basically frozen raindrops, all the way up to hail, which forms when ice pellets keep getting swept upward during a thunderstorm by air flow and accumulate more ice until they’re too heavy to stay aloft. There one state above hail that sounds terrifying: a megacryometeor. It’s a large chunk of ice, different from hail. Some have weighed up to 110 pounds! Their formation isn’t well understood, more known by where they haven’t come from than where they have (things like not chunks falling from airplanes, for example). If you’re interested in them, check out this article, The Peculiar Phenomenon of Megacryometeors.

Animal tracks on a frozen creek – photo by E. Jurus

When meteorologists forecast a winter storm, they look at the temperature of the air masses in the storm and how they’re moving. If a warm air mass pushes above a cold mass that contains freezing temperatures, the raindrops may change form as they fall.

If the cold mass moves out of the way in time, the rain will fall mainly on the plain. (snicker)

If the warm air mass moves, but it’s cold below, snowflakes may fall.

A thin cold mass will produce freezing rain, and the result will be what our corner of the world is facing tomorrow.

A single storm can produce several types of precipitation, as ours is forecast to do. Meteorologists and pilots use a special code system called METAR to classify precipitation There are eleven designations for wintery stuff, from FZDZ for freezing drizzle to MC for the nasty Megacryometeor.

“The Arctic has huge glaciers, frozen waterfalls and floating ice. This is scenery on which man has left no mark, which has stayed unchanged for centuries, wild, bleak, hauntingly beautiful; it is a part of God’s creation we have made no effort to tame.” Ann Widdecombe

Ice ‘beard’ on the shaded underside of a cliff – photo by E. Jurus

When my family lived in northern Ontario, the main road to the community where our farm was located crossed a small river with a rocky bottom. In the summer my dad would often take us to swim in it, in a spot just below the bridge, as the river was shallow enough. In the long and cold wintertime, though, accretions of ice and logs could take out the bridge, which meant that my dad couldn’t get home from the logging camp he was a medic for at the end of the day. He’d phone us from the house of someone who lived just on the other side of the bridge to say he’d be spending the night with them.

In the spring, when all the ice and snow would begin melting, we had to be wary of unexpected flooding. Dips I in the gravel road to the nearest town for groceries could become ponds by the time we returned home.

Ice can be both beautiful and deadly. The worst disaster in maritime history, the sinking of the Titanic, was caused in main part by an iceberg.

As such, it can represent a lot of things when it’s written about or filmed. For instance, we might call someone ‘as cool as ice’, which could either mean very composed, or having a façade that hides duplicity. A slight variation, ‘cold as ice’, might signify emotionless, frigid, or inhuman. Sometimes it becomes part of an oxymoron, ice-cold anger, that means someone who’s livid but very in control, and therefore not to be taken lightly.

Ice-storm decor on my car several winters ago – photo by E. Jurus

Landscapes of ice and snow can look enchanting, or forbidding. Ice creates stunning sculptures as it coats our everyday surroundings, but too much of it, such as on a house’s roof, can cause a lot of damage. Christmas stores usually sell pretty artificial icicles to hang on our holiday trees, but we’re not so fond of the real thing when it’s encrusting our cars.

Rudolf Koivun kuvitusta H. C. Andersenin satuun Lumikuningatar. Julkaistiin vuonna 1992 osana kokoelmaa Rudolf Koivun satuja ja tarinoita, jossa tämä oli myös kansikuvana. By Rudolf Koivu –, Public Domain,

Writers and film makers have used ice to fantastic effect.

Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen described the Snow Queen in his famous fairy tale like this:

“A few snowflakes were falling, and the largest flake of all alighted on the edge of one of the flower boxes. This flake grew bigger and bigger, until at last it turned into a woman, who was dressed in the finest white gauze which looked as if it had been made from millions of star-shaped flakes. She was beautiful and she was graceful, but she was ice-shining, glittering ice. She was alive, for all that, and her eyes sparkled like two bright stars, but in them there was neither rest nor peace. She nodded toward the window and beckoned with her hand.”

Andersen’s story about the evil frozen queen who kidnaps a young boy has, like all great stories, inspired numerous iterations on paper and on screen, including one of Disney Studios most successful animated films, Frozen, musicals and dance productions, and one of my favourite science fiction novels, The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge.  

Fourteenth century writer Dante Alighieri, in Inferno, the first book of his trilogy titled Divine Comedy, described Hell as nine concentric circles of torments appropriate to each person’s sin. Those who’ve committed Treachery are consigned to the Ninth Circle, where they’re trapped in a lake of ice, within four concentric rings, the first of which is called Caina, after Cain, who symbolizes Traitors to their Kindred. In that ring, the sinners’ necks and heads are protruding from the ice, so they can at least bow their heads out of the freezing wind. But by the fourth ring, reserved for Traitors to their Lords and named for Judas Iscariot, the sinners are completely encased in the ice, immobilized and silent.

In Fort Erie, Ontario, in February 2019 a huge amount of ice on the Niagara River forced its way over the stone wall on the banks and onto land. – photo by E. Jurus

A real-life portrayal of the perils of icy landscapes appeared in Jon Krakauer’s recounting of the ill-fated party of people trying to summit Mount Everest in 1996. He was a journalist, working for the adventure magazine Outside, on the expedition originally to just reach Base Camp. However, he decided to make the full climb, delayed his visit for a year to train, and then joined the climb that turned into a disaster. There’s a very short window each year during which, if the weather cooperates, climbers can make their attempt, and an even shorter window to progress from the fourth and final camp 26,000 feet. There, they’re already in the Death Zone, where there’s simply not enough available oxygen to continue to live, so they must ascend and come back down quickly. A sudden blizzard, which is what happened in 1996, is a terrible danger, both because it slows things down dramatically as well as the extra cold and blinding snow, and eight of the climbers never made it home again. If you’d like to find out more about climbing Mount Everest, you can check out How Climbing Mount Everest Works.

Niagara Falls when it decides to freeze – photo by E. Jurus

Snow and ice often feature in a category of fiction called Climate fiction, or cli-fi. It’s speculative fiction that assumes that something goes seriously wrong with the environmental balance of our planet, typically from something stupid that we humans have done.

Although the term is modern, one of the earliest writers to explore the subject was Jules Verne, in his novel The Purchase of the North Pole (also called Topsy-Turvy). Published in 1889, it takes place in an undefined future date in the 1890s. A group of men, members of the Baltimore Gun Club, decide they want to end the change of seasons by using the recoil from firing off an enormous cannon, set deeply into the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, to remove the tilt of the Earth’s axis. This would then make the lands around the North Pole accessible for mining. It doesn’t work, due to a miscalculation, but Verne’s message was really about the idiocy and greed of the people who wanted to try it.

A close-up of different pieces of ice on a river bank – photo by E. Jurus

We fiction writers get to play with all kinds of fantastic landscapes and scenarios, which highlight the action in our story, or convey a mood or a message. Translating our scenarios to screen can be extremely challenging; it took decades for technology to progress far enough to bring superheroes like Spiderman to life on the big screen, although several attempts were made on television. But when done well, the results can be spectacular.

“The world seemed spellbound in icy purity, its earthly blemishes veiled; it lay fixed in a deathlike, enchanted trance.”
― Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Canada geese explore a snowy and icy shoreline – photo by E. Jurus

The movie Snowpiercer took a lot of work to bring a French graphic novel to life for viewers. But director Bong Joon-ho came across a story that fascinated him in a comic book store: what might happen if an attempt to halt global warming went horribly wrong, and the only survivable place to live was a long train, 1001 cars, that continually circled the Earth on a track through an entire planet encased in ice.

Bong Joon-ho said about the story,

“When I first came across Transperceneige, the first thing that grabbed my attention was the unique cinematic space of a train. Hundreds of metal pieces moving like a snake carrying people squirming inside gripped my heart. And the people were fighting against each other. They were not equal in this Noah’s ark that held the last survivors as they were divided into cars.”

But he realized the difficulties of effectively portraying the massive train and its conditions in movie form. He scouted for a film studio that could house four train cars, and ended up choosing the Czech Republic. The story had to be rewritten to fit a two-hour movie format as well as for what special effects could allow. It took four years to develop the project, and another three to produce the film.

Around ninety percent of the movie was shot on set, but some outdoor scenes were shot in the Austrian Alps on the Hintertux Glacier. A 328-foot replica of the train was constructed, weighing almost 100 tons, and was moved around to convey curves, vibrations and swaying with a giant gimbal, a supporting structure that pivots, allowing rotational movements. A team of over 70 artists worked on visual effects, with quite a few shots incorporating CGI. To create the Aquarium Car, a team in Vancouver spent time at the Vancouver Aquarium to study the lighting, refracting through water and glass, the way the fish moved, and the interplay of all of it.

When we’re telling a story, every aspect has to make sense, from the look of where different kinds of people live, to how they dress. That’s a lot easier on film, where viewers can just see the costumes as compared to reading a lengthy and probably boring description. In Snowpiercer, the character of Minister Mason, played by Tilda Swinton, was a crazed and somewhat monstrous figurehead. She was costumed as an older-style conservative politician who’d likely, in better days, have worn furs and sneered at the less-fortunate. By contrast, the passengers in the low-class tail section of the train had to scrounge whatever worn, dirty piece of material they could to make their clothes. The designers went to Swinton’s home in Scotland, apparently, to pay with various outfits, glasses, wigs and teeth to achieve the final look that was so effective on screen.

So the ice-bound world became a vehicle to tell the story of what happens when society aboard the last refuge becomes as stratified as any culture that preceded it, and like the French Revolution, with a similar consequence. The ice is a symbol of man’s destruction of the environment, as well as the humanity of the privileged class who have no compassion for the people living (if one could call it that) further back.

Next time you see a piece of ice, really look at it, and appreciate everything it encompasses, even if you’re not trying to write something dramatic around it 😉

“Europe was a horrible place. There was nothing on TV. The food was terrible. And they don’t even have ice. Who doesn’t have ice?” Johnny Ramone

Ice makes artwork on a flowing pond – photo by E. Jurus

“When we encounter tiny groups of atoms, interesting questions and special rules come into play. Take water, for instance: what is the smallest possible ice cube? It has been discovered that you need at least 275 water molecules in a cluster before it can show ice-like properties, with about 475 molecules before it becomes truly ice. That is a cube with about eight H2O molecules along each edge. The importance of this kind of knowledge is that it helps us model the process of cloud formation in the atmosphere as well as understand how liquids freeze.”  Peter Atkins, Chemistry: A Very Short Introduction

A great representation of ice in silk at the Chinese Lantern Festival 2022, Nashville Zoo – photo by E. Jurus

All photos taken by me may not be used without my express permission. E. Jurus

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