Water In Winter

Water has many unusual properties that make it suitable as the medium for life. Water’s ability to dissolve substances and to occur as a liquid where living things can absorb it are, in fact, much of the reason why life can exist on earth.

At this time of year, much of the water we see in the Chautauqua Watershed also occurs as a solid, and a very unusual solid at that. One thing that makes water so odd is that it is less dense as a solid than as a liquid (e.g., ice floats). Water is at its densest at 39 degrees Fahrenheit. As water gets colder it expands, and at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it expands further to form ice. Like all lakes that freeze over, Chautauqua Lake freezes at the surface, allowing aquatic creatures to survive the winter in the calm, dense waters below.

Water as a solid also makes up that most sublime, and maddening, winter phenomenon snow. Snow crystals form within clouds when water vapor condenses directly into ice on suspended dust particles. Their six-sided shapes result from the orderly way that water molecules line up to form a crystal lattice as water freezes. Snow crystals take on innumerable forms, depending on the temperature and humidity in their cloud birthplace and what happens to them as they fall. What we call “snowflakes” may consist of single crystals, several crystals stuck together or fluffy globs. It is true in a sense that no two snowflakes are alike, but snow crystals do take on recognizable forms that lend themselves to classification, with categories such as stellar dendrites, needles and capped columns.

Water can change from vapor to solid near or on the ground too. When this happens, we get hoarfrost. One of the most dazzling manifestations of hoarfrost occurs on sunny winter mornings when the snow’s surface looks like a carpet of diamonds. This happens when water evaporates from snow beneath during the night, then condenses to form crystals on the colder surface, covering the snow with a layer of large, mirror-like ice crystals that reflect the morning sunlight.

Yes, water in winter can make life difficult, even dangerous, for those of us who live and travel in the Chautauqua Lake basin. But at the same time that we might curse the heavy, slippery stuff, we had better be grateful that much of that snow will become precious groundwater once it melts in spring. Hydrologists remind us that we rely on snowfall to recharge aquifers and make up for potential deficits during the summer months.

But beyond the use we get out of snow, the wintry landscapes of the basin are simply beautiful. Be sure to make time to appreciate it when it snows, whether gazing out at the scene from the comfort of your home or enjoying the sense of wonder and stillness it creates when on skis or snowshoes.

Mark Baldwin is the Education/Exhibits director of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute and a former CWC board director. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local, private nonprofit organization with a mission to preserve and enhance the water quality, scenic beauty, and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information on CWC, visit us at chautauquawatershed.org or facebook.com/chautauquawatershed or call 664-2166.