Ice to Water – Rock to Liquid

One of the most impressive, magical, and least appreciated spring changes is taking place right now in Vermont and through much of the northern portion of the globe.  In damp, shady, north facing areas ice is melting, becoming water.

This is a remarkable transition, a hexagonal mineral, ice, is, all by itself, changing its phase state, becoming an amorphous liquid.  In essence, boulders, cliff faces, and sand banks are melting and flowing away.  It is as though the rocky hills and mountains of the world slithered into the valleys and flowed to the sea every year.

The big solid blocks of ice form in the same manner as igneous rocks, water taking on the role of cooling magma.  A frozen waterfall is akin to a solidified flow of low gas content lava in Hawaii or Iceland.

Melting ice soaks into the ground carrying the sun’s heat with it, defrosting the frozen ground, waking up trees, plants, and animals, recharging groundwater resources, making streams flow, and redistributing nutrients.

The ice fall to the right was formed last winter from ground water seepage.  The base of the icefall spreads, molasses like, over a steep slope of boulders covered in decaying leaves, richly organic soil, and moss.  The melt water sinks directly into the ground, speeding the decomposition of leaves and woody debris, trickles down to the shallow bedrock, flows along this impermeable surface, and reemerges downslope in the company of ostrich ferns, blue cohosh, maiden hair ferns, and red cup fungus.

Right now, most of the plants are still waking up, small shoots and sprouts just beginning to emerge from the thawing ground.  Some plants have a jump on the process.  In relatively undisturbed areas of the New England forest near steep streams and seeps a forest dwelling sedge has been waiting all winter under the snow.

Carex plantagineaSedges are more often found in the open, in wet fields, swamps, marshes, and the like, but plantain leaved sedge (Carex plantaginea) is a true forest dweller.  It is an evergreen perennial with broad, thin leaves to best collect the dim sunlight that penetrates to the forest floor.  It lies flat under the snow, perhaps beginning to photosynthesize even before the snow fully melts, relying on the light that filters through the fluffy layer of sand-like ice that is snow.

Undisturbed stream banks, are festooned with this early wakening plant.  Sometimes it looks as though someone scattered dozens of limp green pompoms over the ground near the streams.

These small streams are particularly active this time of year.  The tumble down steep slopes, splashing from cobble to boulder, their flow more a series of miniature waterfalls than anything else.  The constant churning and splashing oxygenates the cool water, this oxygen allowing insects and amphibians to live in the steep streams and fish to live in the deeper, more slow moving rivers.

On a sunny day there is little more enjoyable than to sit in the forest listening to the sound of swift moving water and let your eyes and mind wander the landscape.


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