Scientists have been scratching their heads for nearly a century over just how and why ‘hair ice’–glistening clusters of ice resembling snowy heads of hair–burst out through rotting wood. However, recent study published in the journal Biogeosciences brings the mystery one step closer to being solved, as researchers have found the presence of certain cold-tolerant fungi in the rotten wood hair ice grows in to be the root cause of its growth.
AN AGE OLD MYSTERY
Famous for his work on the continental drift theory, Alfred Wegener was the first to look into the mystery of hair ice in 1918. Studying the ice’s pale cobweb-like coating, he was the first to suspect the icy strands to have their origin and cause linked to the fungus in the rotting wood they inhabit. Specifically, Wegener linked the nature of hair ice’s coating to the presence of mycelium–the roots of a fungus that saps nutrients from rotting wood, thus giving it its unique texture and color.
OLD CLUES, NEW RESEARCH
New research shows that Andrew Wegener might have been closer to the answer than he realized. 90 years later, researchers are finding evidence that the presence of mycelium in rotting wood is indeed vital to the growth of hair ice. Scientists tested its necessity for hair ice growth by treating mycelium-coated wood with fungicide and hot water, which completely stopped the growth of hair ice. Christian Mätzler , from the University of Applied Physics at the University of Bern in Switzerland, recently stated in a press release that “The same amount of ice is produced on wood with or without fungal activity, but without this activity, the ice forms a crust-like structure,” providing further evidence for the fungus root’s role in the production of hair ice.
The fungus has been show to help the ice grow with diameters of .0004 inches, giving hair ice its trademark strands. Further research shows the presence of lignin and tannin–two chemicals present in dry wood, giving it resistance to rotting–in every sample of hair ice collected. Scientists expect the fungi breaking down lignin by secreting enzymes to be the root cause of the ice’s milky color, while the fungus simultaneously acts as a natural hairspray, preventing re-crystallization (a process that turns small ice crystals into larger ones).
WHERE TO FIND HAIR ICE
Mätzler first found hair ice by accident, where on a forest walk, he along with other researchers were “surprised by its beauty.” Growing mostly during the night in temperatures below freezing, the beauty of hair ice is fleeting, as it tends to quickly melt away as the sun comes up.
It is also almost completely invisible in the snow, making the task of finding it in nature relatively difficult. Researchers have blamed its fragility, elusiveness, and its difficult-to-reach places of origin–roughly 50 degrees north of countries such as France, Germany, Sweden, the US and Wales–for hair ice’s ability to stump scientists enchanted by its beauty for nearly 90 years.