Dan Holtmeyer Photography

The many lives of ice

Enormous icicles hang from Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis in December 2018.

For as long as I’ve been taking pictures, I have had two constant muses: fungi and ice. After our recent bout of winter weather, I felt compelled to share the latter. 

I’ve photographed dozens of water’s frozen forms, each shaped by a wide array of environmental dials. As you might guess, the fact that the temperature gets below 32 degrees isn’t all that matters. Which face the ice will reveal also depends on how much lower than freezing it is; how long it has been below freezing and how quickly it got there; whether the freezing water was previously flowing, still, falling through the air or a vapor within the air itself; what is below or beside or above the water; and what new circumstances act on the ice after it forms. 

Cataloging the diversity that emerges from all of these possible recipes has been a continual delight. There are beautiful fractals and polygons, sinuous curves, complex shapes that seem to belong in biology, geology, even astronomy. 

Take, for example, the frosts that deposit out of cold, typically calm air. These are often the spikiest or most crystalline forms: 

Tree-like frost crystals formed on top of snow in Devil’s Den State Park, Arkansas, January 2017.

Frost on our window in St. Paul, Minnesota, in January 2020.

Lines of frost on my car in Fayetteville, Arkansas, December 2017.

A coating of ice on one of Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes in March 2015.

Blades of ice coat the tips of grass poking out of a frozen puddle in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in January 2016.

Crystals coat cypress leaves in Springfield, Missouri, in November 2016.

Hoar frost forms from the vapor thrown off by a waterfall at Lake Wedington, Arkansas, February 2021.

Beautiful plates of ice glisten on blades of grass in Fayetteville, Arkansas, January 2016.

Frost coats a spiderweb near Eureka Springs, Arkansas, in December 2015, thanks to a nearby river that threw off steam as it cooled.

These leaves were right next to that spiderweb, too.

Shards of frost grow onto the smooth frozen surface of a pond in Fayetteville, Arkansas, December 2016.

Then there’s ice that builds from flowing or splashing water through accumulation, like stalactites or other cave formations, one miniscule layer at a time. These forms are often rounded and botryoidal: 

The edges of Lee Creek froze into these curves and ovals at Devil’s Den State Park, Arkansas, January 2017.

Icicles along Lake Superior’s North Shore in February 2020.

Lobes of ice just above a stream at Lake Wedington, Arkansas, January 2018.

Dangling roots and stems collect ice accretions along the outflow of Lake Fayetteville, Arkansas, January 2018.

Icicles grow like stalactites at Hidden Falls Regional Park, St. Paul, Minnesota, November 2019.

Below the icicles in the previous image, ice builds up like fused glass beads.

A fascinating geometric form covers a round pebble on Lake Superior’s North Shore, February 2020.

Little ice beads are strung on exposed grass in a ditch in Fayetteville, Arkansas, January 2016.

Lake Fayetteville in Arkansas hadn’t frozen in January 2016, but its water caught on a twig and exposed to the air did.

Unusual icicles glint in the evening light at Lake Fayetteville, Arkansas, January 2016.

Frost grows directly onto icicles at Lake Wedington, Arkansas, February 2021.

A frost flower made of delicate icy ribbons grows from the base of a plant stem on a frigid morning following a warmer day; Lake Wedington, Arkansas, January 2018. The previous warmer day is important, because the plant’s sap must be flowing for these to form.

Ice slowly covers a stream in the Minnesota River National Wildlife Refuge, November 2018.

Minnesota’s Baptism River still flows even as ice nearly covers it in February 2020.

In contrast, other forms of ice come out only when the original water is stationary and calm, as in a pond, puddle or even a wet sidewalk. Here you’ll frequently see lobed or geometric shapes. 

A puddle in Bentonville, Arkansas, turns into an unusually striped sheet of ice thanks to the influence of leaves and grass underneath, January 2021.

Another puddle in Bentonville, Arkansas, frozen around exposed grass into fungi-like lobes, January 2021.

Bubbles are trapped in place in a Fayetteville, Arkansas, pond, January 2016.

A Fayetteville, Arkansas, pond’s surface freezes into sharply angled triangles, January 2016.

Needles or hairs of ice are encased in a transparent ice layer along the edge of Keller Lake, Minnesota, January 2019.

Unusual lobed polygon-like shapes visible in the frozen surface of Minnesota’s Keller Lake, January 2019.

Great Sand Dunes National Park’s shallow Medano Creek freezes into fantastical shards on a frigid March morning in 2015.

A layer of meltwater covering a St. Paul, Minnesota, sidewalk freezes into a snowflake-like design several inches across in March 2020.

Stagnant water at Hidden Falls Regional Park in Minnesota, November 2019.

Stagnant water seems to freeze in successive layers at Hidden Falls State Park in Minnesota, November 2019.

While many types of ice form on their own, others only come about because of external influence – the flow of wind or liquid water around them, for example. These often remind me of biological or geological formations. 

Minnesota’s Minnehaha Creek carves its frozen surface, December 2018.

Melting icicles sharpen into blades several feet long at Arkansas’ Devil’s Den State Park, January 2015.

Ice on Lake Superior’s North Shore takes a disjointed appearance as it forms and also melts from splashing waves, January 2019.

A coating of ice on a bluff near Minnesota’s Minnehaha Creek appears shattered but is smooth and solid to the touch, March 2019. Maybe compressive forces from freezing and thawing created these fractures.

High wind whips the snow in Minneapolis, February 2019.

Windblown snow looks like tiny dunes from above in Savage, Minnesota, February 2020.

An unusually heavy snowfall in Rogers, Arkansas, was shaped into dune-like curves by wind and fenceposts, February 2022.

Looking like an invisible tree’s roots, this dark shape in a frozen pond stretches over 5 feet in Savage, Minnesota, January 2019. How these form is a bit of a mystery but seems to have to do with liquid water on top of a layer of ice, which then flows down through a breach in the surface that later refreezes.

Minnehaha Creek carves its thinly frozen surface into strange forms, January 2020.

One more for Minnehaha Creek, these channels, carved into a layer of ice like miniature tributaries, are maybe a millimeter or so wide, January 2020.

Meltwater cuts well-defined channels through wet snow in Minneapolis, February 2019.

Blocks of ice removed from Minnesota’s Prior Lake for a Polar Plunge event show how thick the ice has become, February 2019.

Last but not least, here are some oddities that didn’t seem to fit in one of the categories above. 

Freezing rain takes on the shape of a plant in Fayetteville, Arkansas, February 2018.

For reasons I don’t know, snow collects in tiny clumps on a tree at the Minnesota River Wildlife Refuge, December 2019.

Leftover spider silk catches snowflakes at Lake Wedington, Arkansas, January 2022.

Slushy snow takes on a beautiful fractal shape on the surface of a Fayetteville, Arkansas, pond in February 2015.

Heavy snow takes an undulating appearance on a fallen tree at Hidden Falls Regional Park, Minnesota, March 2019.

As you can see, I’m usually taking my best guess at how certain types of ice form, and sometimes I have no idea. And I seem to find new types every winter. There’s always more to see and learn. 

Thank you for looking.


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