The Wandering Scientist

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Frozen air in Grünow

Dec 30, 2010

Grünow, Germany

My first time in Grünow, and this is as wonderful a winter as I could wish for. It has been snowing around Berlin (Grünow is about an hour North of Berlin) regularly through all December. With exception of a couple brief thaws at the beginning, it hass stayed below freezing. While there is a treacherous layer of ice beneath the snow, it’s been worn through on all the major streets. Thin sheets of ice also cover all the trees. Heavy accumulation of ice and snow has broken a lot of trees and branches, temporarily shutting down some highways and railroads in the area. Though frozen, everything has been back to normal, more or less, for about a week.

Yesterday I witnessed something I have not seen in a long time – an extra-cold front rolled through and froze the air. The temperature outside dropped from -5 C to -9 C in about an hour in the middle of the day, which is an unusual swing for the area. The physics is quite simple. When the temperature drops that quickly, past the dew point, the moisture remaining in the air doesn’t have time to condense somewhere, and so it forms droplets right in the air. This is how fog is formed. Of course, if the temperature is already below freezing, it’s a frozen, icy fog. Which looks far more ominous than regular fog.

I first noticed that something was off as we were driving home from a restaurant. I was looking at a hillside where some clumps of earth were poking through the unperturbed white snow. The country here is mostly farmland, so huge plots of snow go untouched for days except for a few animals that cross them.

My eyes followed the clumps up the side of the hill. As the hill rose, the clumps became less visible. However, they were not being covered up by more snow. Their obscurity was smoky and distant. More disturbingly, the clumps faded by the hill did not seem to end. It simply rose infinitely into where the sky should have been. There was no sky. The hillside simply extended into the whiteness that now included that whole side of existence.

As I looked around, I noticed the same whiteness creeping over the distant objects all around. Trees, houses, other roads, everything was slowly dissolving. This did not seem like a fog, or a low cloud, or a snowfall. Fogs and clouds have a texture to them, and a snowfall has movement. This manifestation was almost perfectly even and motionless in its distribution. Everything simply faded and dissolved, became erased.

The temperature continued to drop for a couple more degrees, and the frozen fog set in with greater intensity. As it thickened, all that remained was the stretch of the road ahead and the row of trees following the sides of the road. Everything else was at the most a shadow reminiscent of the object’s existence. Further out, the white fields and hillsides merged seamlessly with the equally white sky.

At first, I have to admit, this brought with itself the uneasy feelings of alarm. Things were disappearing, and even the sun itself was powerless to get through the freeze. For a while, it hung in the sky as a dimly lit token of its presence. After a while, however, even this sunk into nothingness as the sky became increasingly even. Though these feelings did not last long.

All became peace and simplicity.

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