The Shape of Water is a phrase scrolling on my social media feed. It is the title of a current movie. I’m not sure of the movie plot but I find the phrase intriguing. It conjures up an image of water in a glass. If the glass were to suddenly disappear, water would spread in a puddle on the table, not able to retain its column like shape. A glass full of water takes on the shape of the glass.
When we think of water, we think of it in its liquid form. Throughout most of the year, water flows through our streams, creeks and rivers. It runs downhill and collects in the lowest places, taking the shape of whatever boundaries the land provides. It cools us, nourishes us, refreshes us. But as Earth turns and the Northern Hemisphere tilts away from the sun, our days shorten, temperatures drops and that water changes form around us.
Water is a shape shifter between solid, liquid or gas. Its shape, or rather its form, is dependent on the conditions around it. It is amazing the difference a few, even one degree makes. Between 75° and 76° Fahrenheit, the change is hardly apparent. But one degree lower than 33° F means a change from liquid to solid for water.
In this snowy, winter landscape, we are surrounded by water in frozen forms. I wake to see the intricate patterns of frost on my back door window. It is an old door and moisture from the warm inside air lands on the cold glass, turning to liquid then freezing overnight. On these cold mornings the little jagged fingers of white ice crystals start in the corners, building on one another in star-like shapes. The geometric patterns spread across the window as if alive.
In the same way, ponds, lakes, creeks and rivers freeze, from the edges to the middle. Liquid water is a great insulator and holds heat for a long time. But as winter continues the shallow edges of water bodies cool, allowing ice to form. The less dense ice floats on the surface of the body of water allowing fish and other animals to live in the liquid water below throughout the winter.
On some cold mornings when conditions are just right, hoarfrost gathers on anything small and cold — leaf edges, berries, wires. The water vapor in the air changes directly to solid ice, skipping the liquid stage. The term hoarfrost comes from an Old English term that meant showing signs of old age. The white covering gives outside objects the appearance of graying hair. The sharp ice crystals create beautiful and intimidating sculptures like battle armaments in miniature.
When water freezes inside a cloud it is snow. Thousands of feet above our head, water droplets condense around a nuclei — a piece of dust drawn upward from fire, a particle of pollen, or a speck of clay. When cooled at high altitudes the water freezes into an ice crystal. According to Elizabeth Lawlor’s Discover Nature In Winter, one tiny ice crystal is made up of one quintillion water molecules. The crystals grow together to form a snowflake. It is the unique structure of these crystals that give snowflakes their usually six-sided shape. Different shaped snowflakes form under different conditions of humidity and temperature. As they tumble through the atmosphere they grow, get damaged or join with other snowflakes, making each flake an individual, no two alike. One by one, this frozen water falls to create a blanket and a blank canvas upon our Earth.
Water comes in many forms, each a different shape, texture, state of matter. It is both necessary for our survival but can also destroy. We view it as beautiful and unpleasant. Though it may seem a long way away, in spring this frozen water will warm and become liquid again. It will evaporate into the clouds, percolate into the ground or quench the thirst of an animal. Imagine the story a water droplet could tell as it traveled from creek to cloud to plant to person in the water cycle throughout the year.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information is online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Katie Finch is a naturalist at Audubon.