Argyll’s own natural winter wonder

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Often hidden from view among the forests of Argyll, a winter phenomenon is occurring thanks to the area’s damp and relatively mild climate.

Hair ice is a type of ice that forms on dead wood and takes the shape of fine, silky hair. It is believed to be caused by a fungus and occurs in hard and dead wood, although the reason behind its formation remains unclear. The conditions for hair ice to occur are fairly specific, requiring just the right temperature, moisture and wood type – and it seems that the ‘temperate rainforest’ of Argyll provides just that.

Dr Phil Anderson from the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) first noticed hair ice when he moved to Taynuilt from Cambridge 10 years ago and has begun looking into the phenomenon.

Hair ice

He said: ‘Hair ice is not that common but if you want to find it, Argyll is about as good a place as anywhere in the world. I first noticed it in my garden; there was this fragile bit of ice sitting in the sunshine where it shouldn’t have been. I’ve since seen it up Glen Lonan and other places locally.

‘I’ve worked in Antarctica and studied how snow hardens but I found hair ice formation absolutely fascinating. It’s just weird!’

Dr Dorothee Gotz works at Lallemand Aquapharm, which has a lab at SAMS, and shares an interest in hair ice formation. Lallemand Aquapharm holds a culture collection that includes fungus and, as a microbiologist, Dorothee recognised that the fungus responsible for hair ice formation would be worth including in the collection.

She said: ‘I saw hair ice for the first time three years ago in Sutherland’s Grove, so I took a sample to add to our collection. It’s a fascinating bit of microbiology. A fungus that forms ice and degrades wood is certainly of interest and could potentially have industrial applications.’

Both scientists are keen to find out why this phenomenon occurs but say there is very little published literature on it, perhaps because it is so rare.

‘We don’t know what’s in it for the fungus,’ explains Dr Gotz. ‘It needs to expend a lot of energy to create the hair ice and there is no apparent benefit to doing this. Water is a problem for micro-organisms when it freezes, as ice can puncture the membrane. Perhaps the fungus is trying to expel the water before it becomes a problem.’

Hair ice is most likely to form on dead wood with no bark. It also forms on certain trees more than others and prefers hard woods such as birch.

‘As a rough guide, if the gritters are out, then hair ice might be out too,’ says Dr Anderson. ‘You’re most likely to find it on a crisp, sunny morning after a clear night. The temperature has to be just below freezing. If you have those conditions, keep your eyes peeled for frost or ice that shouldn’t be there.’