The one hundred year old hair ice mystery has finally been revealed by researchers from Germany and Switzerland. The joint study was recently published in the Biogeosciences journal and sheds a lot of light on this odd phenomenon.
During the colder seasons, the appearance of frost flowers, odd formations of ice created when water accumulates from small cracks within trees or other plants, is not unusual. Similar is the occurrence known as hair ice, but this one has not been properly understood until now.
The phenomenon was first identified and described by famous explorer and scientist Alfred Wegener nearly a century ago. He theorized that the odd pattern of ice was most likely created due to the influences of fungi growing on decaying tree parts.
His claim was confirmed in 2005 when a group of Swiss scientists led by Christian Mätzler decide to analyze the ice. The tests they used were simple, such as simply letting the ice melt to see if something remains behind. They did manage to find that applying fungicide to the wood prevented the phenomenon from happening at all.
But besides that, their research remained inconclusive, mainly due to the rarity of the event and the difficulty of transporting the ice in a controlled environment without it melting on the way. However, the team recently appealed to German biologists to help them get to the bottom of this.
Although the ice itself remained difficult to transport, ample samples from the wood where the phenomenon occurred were collected. After these were studied under a microscope, it was found that the Exidiopsis Effuse species of fungus was present in all the samples.
Even though they found the species responsible for hair ice, it was still unclear how it caused the phenomenon. Mätzler did provide a response. The process is similar to how frost flowers are formed: water is drawn from within the plant towards the ice that appears around small sap-created cracks. As more water is drawn and freezes when reaching the crack, it pushes the existing ice towards the exterior.
In the case of hair ice, water is drawn from cracks in tree bark. Without the fungi, it simply creates a crust of ice on the surface of the wood. But it is likely that some chemical compound found within the fungus affects the freezing process by preventing the formation of larger ice formations.
The substance in question remains unknown for now, but the scientists intend to look further into it. Regardless, this research has clarified many aspects of the rare but beautiful occurrence.
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