We rarely take the time to truly appreciate the beauty that our planet bestows upon mankind, yet when we do, we are presented with wondrous things, such as hair ice. For over 100 years, the mystery of this delicate hair ice remained unsolved. But researchers have finally identified the culprit responsible for the breath-taking ice sculptures: a fungus.
The beautiful formations are possible thanks to Exidiopsis effusa, a particular type of fungus which makes the ice form in this unique way.
Hair ice can only form under specific conditions: it appears overnight, as temperatures fall below 0 degrees Celsius and humidity levels are just right. The morning sun shines brightly enough to melt the ice structures in the morning. They normally grow over rotting branches and leaves, but are a rather rare find.
Scientists have attempted to crack the mystery for some time now. In 1918, world-renowned Alfred Wegener theorized that fungal mycelia had to be somehow involved in this cotton-candy-like ice formation’s appearance. The theory remained just that, though, as researchers failed to produce evidence to support Wegener’s claim.
Finally, a team of Swiss and German researchers decided to revisit the idea and identify the precise fungus responsible for creating the beautiful hair ice structures: Exidiopsis effusa.
The research attempt was fueled by Bern University’s Christian Mätzler, study co-author, who was walking through the forest when the beauty of the ice captured his attention. At first, Mätzler and his team conducted simple tests, such as completely melting the ice. However, they soon employed the help of biologist Gisela Preuß to identify the precise fungus responsible for the unique ice growth.
Mrs. Preuß used microscopy to identify all fungus species present in multiple samples of ice-ridden wood collected between 2012 and 2014. One particular species stood out among all the rest: Exidiopsis Effusa. It was present in all wood samples, and in certain cases, it was the sole fungus present in the sample.
Chemists then proceeded to identifying chemicals involved in the hair ice formation process and discovered that tannin and lignin were present in the ice samples.
Once the team had identified the key elements, all Mätzler had to do was to work out the physics behind the intricate hair-like ice pattern. He discovered that water freezing near the surface of wood leaves a thin film of water between the ice and the wood pores.
This water is affected by suction forces. It is pushed inside the wood and is then pushed outwards in thin, hair-like filaments. The fungus mycelium then helps the hair ice retain its shape.
Mätzler also discovered that the same amount of ice would form on wood with or without the E. Effusa being present, however, when the fungus is absent, ice would create crust-like formations.
Photo credits: Little Buff
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