Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 21, 2009

Hoar-ray for Frost

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:24 pm

What is possibly one of the most beautiful creations of nature, Hoarfrost, has been given one of the worst names. Technically, hoarfrost is well named but the phonetic expression sounds like a reference to the world’s oldest profession. Sometimes “rime” or “radiation frost” is used, but these are no better. Radiation frost sounds like the effect of a nuclear winter for goodness sakes!

Hoary is classically defined as “gray or white as if with age.” It can be used, or at least it could be used at one time, to describe a white-haired old person. Today, I doubt that calling a woman hoary will get you the proper reception.  Even if we replace the word with grizzled, risen eyebrows and swinging purses will follow. No, today we use the term  “silver maned” in order to get across the point with minimal damage. Actually, it’s better not to tell anyone they look old, but that’s another point entirely.

Unfortunately, things named back in the old days still retain their original titles. Hoary, therefore,  is frequently used to describe animals. The Hoary Marmot, a high altitude cousin of the woodchuck, is grizzled with salt and pepper fur and an old dog type of whitish face. A Hoary Redpoll is a northern finch species that is basically a washed out version of a Northern Redpoll with very pale highlights. Hoarfrost, on the other hand, is neither plant nor animal, but is a temporary form of natural art resulting from a mix of moisture and temperature. No matter what it’s called, it is a stunning phenomenon on a micro scale.

Hoar…let’s just call it H-frost…forms on clear cold winter nights when radiation losses into the open air causes objects to become colder than the surrounding environs. This sets up a situation where ice crystals grow off of the atmospheric moisture or feeds off of the moisture which radiates from a plant stem. This form of frost is basically the cold weather equivalent to summer dew. In these conditions, the ice crystals are allowed a three dimensional space rather than the usual two dimensional Jack Frost patterns normally seen on icy windows. Knowing how this process happens does little to enhance the viewing experience, but it’s worth consideration.

So, this leaves us with a brief look at a few h-frost patterns and commentary which is little better than a travelogue.  Take the wonderful effect rendered on a dried Queen Anne’s Lace  seed head (above) or on the stem itself (see here). Oooh. Awww.  How about the re-flowering of a Dogwood seed head in the winter sunrise (see below). Oooh La la.

Sometimes, h-frost can produce a magical scene that with, a little imagination, can transport the viewer to distant lands. Take the northern forest scene (below) as an example. You can see a stand of snow covered spruce trees scattered over a barren landscape. The “fly-over” needed to take this shot was only a few inches off the ground and I didn’t venture more than a few feet off the trail to get the shot. This lilliputian forest was created by the growth of radiating crystals on exposed blades of grass sticking out of a frozen puddle. Individually (see here and here) the blades became stout tree trunks with graceful snow-covered boughs.

At the risk of saying too much about a good thing, I’ll stop and leave the looking to you. Take an opportunity the next frigid still morning to take in some of these sights.  Be sure to get out early before a breath of wind or a slight blush of sunlight destroys them. Be careful when you say “Ohhh” and “Ahhh” because your breath might destroy the delicate hoary thing before you.


  1. What beautiful images!!!

    Comment by Ellen — September 2, 2009 @ 11:34 am

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    Comment by Abigail Jui — December 18, 2011 @ 6:14 pm

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