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Naturalist Notes: Hair Ice

December 23rd, 2016 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

A cold afternoon walk led to a beautiful winter discovery on the Deer Creek Loop trail around the Environmental Learning Center. The temperature had dropped significantly overnight and along with a fresh dusting of snow, we found fine hairlike strands of ice covering numerous down trees all along the trail. Aptly named “hair ice”, these delicate strands of ice form on moist, dead wood when temperatures drop below freezing and the air is humid.

After a little research, we found that this peculiar ice formation is caused by the presence of a fungus within the tree, exidiopsis effuse. Christian Mätzler, the physicist who discovered the conditions needed to grow hair ice, explains how this formation occurs:

“The driving mechanism responsible for producing ice filaments at the wood surface is ice segregation. Liquid water near the branch surface freezes in contact with the cold air, creating an ice front and ‘sandwiching’ a thin water film between this ice and the wood pores. Suction resulting from repelling intermolecular forces acting at this ‘wood–water–ice sandwich’ then gets the water inside the wood pores to move towards the ice front, where it freezes and adds to the existing ice.”

The fungus acts as a “recrystallisation inhibitor”, allowing the ice to form into the hairlike structures.


All photos courtesy of Daniel Dubie, Cohort 16 Graduate Student. 

trees K. Renz

The Social Lives of Trees: Part 1

August 22nd, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Emma Ewert, graduate student in the Institute’s 15th cohort.

I have always found trees comforting and familiar. Playing in the dense woods surrounding my childhood home, they were the walls of my forts or the home of woodland fairies. Living in the Salish Sea, my childhood trees were the stately Douglas-firs, scrappy Shore Pines, somber Grand Firs, and the beautiful, queenly Madronas. Before starting the graduate program at NCI,  I took this connection for granted. I knew forests, I could sense the differences in species and size that came with different climates and succession stages. However, for the most part, I was more interested in getting through the forests to the high places where I could REALLY see something.  

As I learned more about trees and forests, I became more aware of each and every tree. Each new species I learned to see, each new forest I became familiar with added to this growing interest. I started to notice peculiar patterns. Cedars and Western Hemlocks grew tightly along the sides of Douglas-firs, taking advantage of their shade, and creating odd pairs of intertwined trees. Depending on the climate, the same species of tree could look like a gnarled shrub or grow tall and straight, reaching hundreds of feet into the air. I wanted to know why this happened, to get a sense for how and why trees chose to grow in these weird ways.

» Continue reading The Social Lives of Trees: Part 1

Latitudinal and Longitudinal Explorations of Natural History

January 25th, 2012 | Posted by in Field Excursions

As much as we love North Cascadian landscapes, we here at the Institute are still called to visit and experience other amazing places on our planet. We publish accounts of the places Institute staff and graduate students visit in our Road Trip series.

As graduate students immersed in developing a sense of place within the rich, rugged landscapes of the North Cascades, we spend a lot of time attending to, and exploring, the natural world outside our doorsteps. At the Environmental Learning Center, our academic studies of the history, culture, ecology, art, and conservation of this place are integrated with actual feet-on-the-ground learning. This type of naturalizing is a practice that takes patience, and a willingness to move through our surroundings with careful observation as we slowly make sense of its many patterns and intricacies. The deeper we go in this process, the more the meaning and being of the North Cascades opens up to us. We begin to understand the stories written on and of this landscape, and our place in it.

For many of us, this practice of Natural History in all its interdisciplinary forms roots us intimately and specifically to the high mountains and steep river canyons of this region. The nature of this type of learning means that, for many graduate students, we will leave this program knowing the North Cascades better than we know our own, native homelands. How then, do we translate the tools we are learning here to other river drainages, mountains, high deserts, or valley bottoms?

In an effort to explore this question during our month-long respites from the North Cascades, Kiira and I reflected on how the practice of natural history can be used to cultivate awareness and develop a deeper sense of connection to any landscape that we move through. While Kiira’s travels took her home to the rolling hills of southern Vermont, mine took me south into the austral summer of the Patagonian Andes.

» Continue reading Latitudinal and Longitudinal Explorations of Natural History