Smoky Mountain ice curls, whorls, tufts, feathers and mounds—all forms that natural ice can take on the ground under the right conditions. In an era of energy conservation, double-paned (or even triple-paned) windows, and thickly insulated homes and buildings — most of us no longer see ice in any of its patterns on our windows. But if you go hiking this time of year or even just venture into your backyard at the right time, you may well see ice curls.
Ice curls are varying shapes of ice that form on the ground under these conditions: typically a recent rain that has not been sufficiently absorbed into the soil, followed by a quick freeze, usually overnight. Our area is perfect for the formation of ice curls because our Tennessee red clay doesn’t absorb moisture very readily, especially when cold weather has made it even more dense than normal. Then, when a fast freeze occurs, the water left on the ground crystallizes into ice curls. The next morning as you are looking out your insulated window, these ice curls, which can take many shapes, may appear in the distance like tufts of cotton that, during the winter night, have miraculously bloomed in our yards, fields and woodland margins.
Often the ice curls wrap around blades of grass or the woody stems of other plants. In this case they appear like tufts or small white mounds—hence, their cotton-like appearance. But on closer inspection they are actually a collection of icy curls or feathers that have built on one another as the ground water gradually transformed into ice. Although less conspicuous, individual ice curls may also be seen on the ground. But it’s up close that the beauty of ice curls becomes clear—delicate, fragile structures of thinly formed, curling ice—nature’s own miniature ice sculptures, which disappear with just a touch from the sun!
So look for them on your winter walks. You’ll see them, especially in the mornings, after a recent rain or thaw followed by a quick freeze. Later in the day, if the sun has come out, they’ll disappear quickly in the sunny areas but will linger on in the shade. They’re worth your stopping and kneeling down to see them.
Ice curls can be found nearly anywhere from your backyard to the highest elevations in the Great Smoky Mountains. Mount LeConte is always a great place to find ice and snow this time of year. Meandering down any of the trails will afford a chance to find ice curls. Let’s get outdoors and see what we can discover!