The Wonders of Winter
MUCH could be said about the inconveniences of winter in the northern latitudes, of the cold and ice, of the frost and snow that threaten man and other creatures with hardship and hunger. Winter often reminds one of whining car wheels caught in slippery ruts, of grinding engines that are slow to respond in sub-zero temperatures, of the hurried pace through slush and sleet, of freezing fingers, ears and feet. With this in mind one could say, “What’s so wonderful about the wintertime?”
But winter is not all bad, is it? Ask almost any child tumbling in the snow what he thinks of wintertime. Ask the children shaping a snowman, or the young folks skating on frozen ponds, or the adults skiing down powderlike slopes, or grandfather reading a book next to a blazing fireplace. They may tell you that winter is “fun,” “a wonderful time of the year,” despite its hardships.
But the wonders of winter do not end with play and relaxation. The once-noisy chipmunks and groundhogs lie quietly curled in their snug burrows, asleep until warmer weather comes. The geese, ducks and warblers have long since left the naked shrubs and trees in their southward search for sun and warmth. The insects are stilled by the cold.
But above and beneath the blanket of snow there is life. When standing quietly in the woods or in the backyard, one can hear the tiny chickadees chirping away as they probe for seeds and insects. The woodpeckers hurry from tree to tree in search of eggs and larvae that lie dormant in the fissures of the bark or sealed in their silken cocoons. Hardy crows rendezvous above treetops. The footprints in the snow reveal that weasels, rabbits, foxes and deer are out in search of food. The frozen ponds can be heard crackling and grinding. Here is also the shimmer of a special world of sparkling water crystals that push, grow, shatter, ebb and flow with amazing precision and austere beauty.
Beneath the snow blanket, the fallen leaves, and the hard soil, also under the bark of trees, under porch steps, in barns and deserted buildings, there is life in the form of seeds, eggs, cocoons, buds, sleeping animals and dormant roots, each holding within itself the promise of life in the spring.
In fact, alive and at work in the winter forest is another world. To a depth of three inches in any square foot of the forest floor can be found organisms to the total of over 100,000,000,000—about thirty times the human population of the entire earth! Of this total, animals large enough to be seen with the naked eye constitute only .000004 percent! These billions of organisms are busily engaged in transforming fallen leaves and other debris into the gases and nutrients that can once more be utilized by green plants to manufacture food and oxygen. Come spring, there will be food for the trees and other plant life. What a magnificent wonder of God!
Another marvel is the very symbol of winter itself—the snowflake. These extremely fragile crystals keep their six-sided shapes as they fall thousands of feet through gray skies. Snowflakes are lacy growths of water vapor formed around minute dust particles in the air. While we do not normally notice this dust, we can see it when it is caught in the shaft of a sunbeam. At the right temperature, when a water vapor molecule attaches itself to a dust nucleus, a snowflake is born. It takes on remarkable shapes as it plunges earthward. Some shapes are delightfully simple and others are fantastically complex, but no two are precisely alike. Some snow crystals form the most beautiful designs in the world. The exquisite lacelike patterns have often been copied for jewelry pieces and fabric designs. “It is a wonder of wonders that the dance of the molecules produces these geometrical designs,” said one authority about the snowflake.
Usually snowflakes fall individually, but if the temperature is just above freezing, they might cling together as they fall, sometimes forming a flake four inches in diameter. When enough snow falls, an unusual amount of air is trapped within snow crystals. Men have been known to survive two days buried in snow without suffocating. Because of its air-holding potential, snow makes an excellent insulator, keeping heat in the lower ground levels and preserving seeds from freezing and winter crops from being destroyed. How useful this beautiful winter wonder!
Another wonder of winter is ice. The mere freezing of water is a miracle staggering in its significance. By all the rules of physical behavior ice should not float. Almost every substance, whether solid, liquid or gas, will shrink in volume as its temperature goes down. Water follows this rule precisely as a gas and, as a liquid, for 96 percent of the way down the temperature range to its freezing point. But at 39.2 degrees Fahrenheit something happens. As cooling continues, instead of shrinking, the water expands. The icy molecules seem to trap air molecules in their frosty structures, freezing into a solid at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, forming chunks of ice that float with about nine-tenths of the bulk submerged under the surrounding water.
If it were not for this phenomenon—this wonder of floating ice—the world’s seas, lakes and rivers would slowly freeze solid, depriving the earth of its much-needed water supply. But as it is, when winter comes, ice forms and floats on the surface of bodies of water, forming an insulating skin that protects the water beneath from further freezing and so safeguards the living things there.
To whom are we indebted for these winter wonders? The Bible psalmist wrote: “It was you [Jehovah God] that set up all the boundaries of the earth; summer and winter—you yourself formed them.” (Ps. 74:17) Thank God, then, for these fantastic winter wonders.