Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/An ice storm


It was in the early part of February, 1854, that the following phenomena came under my notice. I was at the time in the west of England at my country residence, which I should observe is situated at a considerable elevation above the sea. There had been a good deal of rain, serving to keep up the characteristic name of February, Fillditch, given by the old almanacs. The wet weather was succeeded by two or three warm days, which induced an immense amount of evaporation, and foggy nights resulted. The evening preceding the scene I am about to describe, had been perceptibly colder; the night was obscured by an intense fog, otherwise there was nothing remarkable.

The next morning I was awakened by a message from some of my people, begging me to get up immediately, for the woods were breaking down in every direction. The gardener added on his own authority, that he thought that in the space of an hour every tree round the house would be stripped. I rushed to the window, expecting to see the boughs swayed by the wind. There was hardly a breath of air stirring, but on all sides I heard the ominous sounds of splitting timber. Making my toilette with something more than “convenient speed,” I was soon at the scene of action, where I found in good sooth that the branches on every side came

—— Cracking, crashing, thunder down,

as though a legion of woodmen were felling whole plantations at a stroke. On looking round, I perceived to my amazement that every twig, every bough, was covered with a coating of transparent ice, half an inch or more in thickness. The walls of the house were glazed over; the grass was brittle under my tread, each blade being sheathed in ice; the trunks of the trees were like smooth cylinders of glass; in short, the whole scene had suffered a fantastic metamorphosis. Every object that the eye could rest upon was turned to glass; stalactites were hanging from the upper boughs in every conceivable form; the laurels and other shrubs were not to be recognised, but on examining the leaves, I found that the icy mould in which they were encased retained the most delicate impressions of every fibre. The dark firs were singularly beautiful,

They reared their stiffened heads in jewelled state;
Branches on branches bowed with icy weight,
As drooped their lower limbs superbly bound
In radiant fetters to the spangled ground.

Other trees had the appearance of Chinese pagodas, the cedars were transformed into a glistening mass—too weighty to be long sustained; for while I gazed in helpless astonishment, some of the largest branches split bodily from the trunk, rending others in their fall; and wood and ice lay shivered together in heaps all around. The avenue was soon impassable, so great was the quantity of timber lying in every direction. The spectators only preserved themselves in safety by keeping clear of the trees. The effect seemed the more remarkable from the absence of the ordinary cause, wind; the bucolic mind was fairly startled. Just after the crashing to earth of another magnificent bough from a noble Spanish chestnut, the woodman exclaimed, with a tug of his grizzly locks, “I’ve seen a good many ’clipses, and comets wi’ storms tacked to the tail of ’em, but dang me if I ever zeed nor in this place, nor in t’other, sich wark wi’ the timber. Lor, sir,” he added, “Do y’ look on the almanac, and zee if her have foretold it.”

“They can’t foretell the weather, Lovell,” I replied.

“Lor, sir, save your honour’s pardon, but I think her can; if her can tell the ’clipses, her can tell the weather.”

I had too often exhausted my rhetoric, in vain, to enlighten the mind of Lovell, to make the attempt at this moment. “Against stupidity,” says Carlyle, “the very gods fight unvictorious.”

The wind which had suddenly veered to the south, produced a break in the clouds, and for a few minutes the sun shone forth. It was as if an enchanter’s wand had created a fantastic world of glass, and with another wave of his wand was about to shiver the whole into fragments. The work of destruction was at its height for about an hour, after which the warm current of air set in so rapidly, that the icy scales began to lose their hold, and the ground was soon streaming with water. It is no exaggeration, but a literal fact, that several waggon loads of timber were carted away from the immediate vicinity of the house, before the avenue and the paths were cleared; and several branches which fell contained, by measurement, more than a ton of timber.

I have seen many beautiful, and not a few disastrous, effects of frost, but none like this. It is, however, by no means rare in certain high latitudes. In Mrs. Somerville’s “Physical Geography,” there is an allusion to the ice storms in Upper Canada, where it is described, “that a strong frost coats the trees and all their branches with transparent ice often an inch thick. The noblest trees bend under the load, icicles hang from every bough, which come down in showers with the least breath of wind. The hemlock-spruce especially, with its long drooping branches, is then like a solid mass. If the wind freshens, the smaller trees become like corn beaten down by the tempest, while the large ones swing heavily in the breeze. The forest at last gives way under its load, tree comes down after tree with sudden and terrific violence, crushing all before them, till the whole is one wild uproar, heard from afar like successive discharges of artillery.”

There was most probably a minimum amount of electricity in the fog which preceded the ice storm which I witnessed; had there been a powerful electric agency present, the moisture would have been crystallised, instead of being deposited in smooth masses. I have frequently seen very beautiful effects from what may be termed the “electric fog.” In this case, each tuft of grass and every dead thistle becomes “a thing of beauty,” each centre radiating acicular crystals of ice; the trees are gemmed with prismatic colours; each weed has a starry crown, and countless diamonds sparkle where fall the level rays of the winter’s sun; the gossamer web becomes a glittering network of silk, and the dark holly leaves are covered with a tissue of frosted silver. A beautiful veil of rare texture is flung over the face of nature, and this beautiful veil is curiously fashioned by that same electricity which binds substances together, disengages their gases, determines form, resides in every atom of created matter, influences the nervous system, is mysteriously connected with life, silently sheathes the blade of grass with silica, flashes forth in the brilliant coruscations of the Aurora, speaks aloud in the thundercloud, and, like another Ariel, does our “spiriting gently,” carrying messages of weal and woe regardless of time and space. With the aid of my pocket lens I have often gazed in a transport of delight at the delicate efflorescence of needled crystals, emanating from their centre with mathematical regularity. The immense amount of electricity sometimes present in fogs has been remarked and experimented upon by the late Mr. Crosse. In the “Memorials” of his life, it is mentioned that on one occasion, during a dense fog which was driving over the earth, he suddenly heard a very strong explosion between the brass balls (placed an inch apart) which communicated with his atmospheric conductor. At this time he describes, that he had about 1600 feet of insulated wire extended on high poles round the house; the electricity collected by these wires was brought into the laboratory, and at this time, though the insulators were streaming with wet, the explosion continued between the two balls for upwards of five hours; “the flashes of fire,” he says, “were for a long time too vivid to look at, and the effect was most splendid.” The same experimenter witnessed a similar occurrence during a snow storm which lasted for forty minutes. The electricity, though silent without, manifested itself through means of the apparatus, by the most violent discharges, equal in noise to a volley of pistol shots, while flashes of blinding light passed from the conductor to the receiving ball. It is a curious question to consider why, under certain circumstances, the fog is so electric as to crystallise every drop of moisture, forcing it to obey certain laws of form, and why another time the fog is so wanting in electric power that the deposition which follows a rapid loss of heat is amorphous, only casing the boughs with cylinders of ice, the mere mechanical weight of which, however, rends the wide-spread branches, leaving the noblest tree shorn by a mightier axe than ever woodman wielded.

C. A. H. C.