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Frost

May 31, 2002

We had frost last week, but we’re about to enter our brief frost-free summer. A bitter gardener might joke that there can’t be any frost because there isn’t any water to freeze.

But I noticed in the library’s new “McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology” an article entitled “Frost.” You can read this in the library’s Reference Room.

I was intrigued that there should be such an entry, but the 20-volume encyclopedia is full of fascinating articles you might not expect, such as “Feather” and “Fuzzy-structure acoustics.”

As I read the “Frost” article, I thought of how we often read to verify what we already know. At first, the discussion of frost seemed obvious, but there’s always more to a subject than you might realize until you start to write it down.

And frost, after all, as with other forms of water, has been closely watched by humans. Eskimos are said to have dozens or hundreds of names for different types of snow, but this turns out to be an urban legend. They have no more than we have: slush, sleet, hail, powder, and so forth.

The thermodynamics of frost are interesting, especially to farmers. Consider that the formation of frost can prevent further freezing of the plant tissue because the latent heat released during crystallization of the water can provide enough warmth to protect the plants until sunrise.

I know that farmers in Florida have sprayed their orange blossoms in anticipation of a freezing night and thereby saved their crops.

People are interested in water, even outside of drought-ridden Colorado. We are two-thirds water; tomatoes more so. Water is the medium for life on Earth. Its extreme phases — ice and steam — mark the known limits of life.

Ice continues to be meticulously studied. At one time, there was even a journal entitled “Ice.” The library has a fascinating book about ice in the form of snowflakes, called “Snow Crystals.”

If you want ice closely observed, this is the book for you. After a brief chapter of explanation, the entire book is given over to photographs of snow crystals by W.A. Bentley, who evidently undertook to test the claim that no two snowflakes are alike.

I’m content with the claim. It really only means that the probability of a particular crystal being repeated exactly are astronomically small. Vanishingly small.

The book’s brief introduction, though, is full of information: about observing and photographing snow crystals; their classification, formation, crystallography, peculiarities; and such cousins as ice flowers, rime, glaze and windowpane frost.

Ah … Old Jack Frost and his paintbrush: When we were kids, the windows in our apartment were single pane, of course, and we looked forward to peeking behind the shades in the morning to see what Jack Frost had painted.

In fact, when my mother replaced windows in her house years ago, she kept one single-pane window in the living room, so that Jack Frost would still visit — for the grandchildren, she said. Yeah.

Frost is even corollated with superior economies. Last year, a couple of economists reported on their study of four decades of international economic data. They concluded that frost was the factor, essentially in agriculture but also in public health, that historically has permitted better economies in temperate regions.

But you might care about other water matters right now. The library has books about water law, xeriscape gardening, and irrigation and sprinkler systems.

Grab a cold one and sit down with a guidebook to plan your new garden.

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