The second strange thing about water, the fact that it freezes and increases in size as it does so is again part of the phase changing energy storage and release capacity of the unique chemical bond that forms water, H2O. I have seen ice as clear as any pane of glass as well as cloudy enough to be indistinguishable from plaster. Packed snow often gets ice on it that is as good a sealant as Tupperware. Anyone who has seen the beauty of a hoar frost knows that in addition to making life possible on the planet, ice has the power to transform the Earth into a magical place as well. When I learned that water had the unique ability to float on itself after being frozen it seemed like the strangest thing. If water were to behave like most other substances, shrinking slightly and getting more dense when changing from liquid to solid, the bottoms of the world’s oceans would slowly fill with ice and over time render our Starship Earth a frozen waste land. This one miracle, perhaps above all others challenged my thinking for a decade. The fact that we owe our entire existence to an oddity of this sort made me a little suspicious about other things we take for granted in nature.
The ice for centuries was a miraculous creation of nature. Communities that lived in areas that would be covered with ice for long stretches during the year had perhaps dozens of words for the differing states of this amazing material. The snow as well had discernible personalities and qualities that were worthy of names. One of my favorite snows is the crunches when walked upon snow. In our region, folks know, if they pay attention, that when the double digits below zero arrive, mucous inside your nose will freeze with each inhalation. We also know that salt will only melt snow in a narrow range of temperatures, beyond the low end of which the ice that forms becomes greasy and far more hazardous than snow or ice alone. The ice harvesters of old believed that freezing rendered ice safe for human consumption and would routinely put up entire buildings full of the stuff, packing it in sawdust to keep it from melting. After bacteriologists proved that freezing will not kill many pathogens, the practice of ice harvesting began to wane. Amazingly, many have forgotten how critical to our lives ice has been throughout our history.
The vast amounts of energy required to melt ice are staggering. Especially in areas North of the stress line, roughly the 45th parallel. When the top layers of the very Earth underfoot freezes down several feet, even a week of two of warm er weather might not be enough to released the soils from the icy grasp. Several times in the past few years, water lines coming in to homes in our neighborhood froze solid underground. Over four feet below the surface, it was still cold enough to plug the water lines with plugs of ice. The power of this substance is also relatively invisible, but strong beyond belief. This humble substance can split giant boulders, crack concrete and lift whole slabs of concrete with little trouble. Things we perceive as permanent are not immune from the weathering caused by the freeze thaw cycles that occur routinely in the north.
I cannot help but feel that the energy stored in phase changing water will eventually lead to enrgy storage devices that have applications for home use and industry. While co-generation is well known and utilizes the excess energy latent in heated water and condensed steam after it is used for electricity generation, the energy storage and retrieval that occurs around the freezing point could potentially have just as important an impact as the high temperature processes that are in play today.