The North Saskatchewan River looks so beautiful this time of year. Analyzing the surface of the water, it seems to bloom with frozen lily pads. This blossoming phenomenon is not unique to this river, but it’s certainly a captivating event. Every year, as the cold sweeps across the prairies, these discs appear and proliferate, covering our river with pancakes. I did not just create a new word, the official name of this ice is, in fact, pancake ice!
jomilo75 / Flickr
Pancake ice forms on waterbodies across the world including Scotland’s River Dee, Antarctica, and even the Great Lakes! These round plates are observed from 30cm-3m in diameter and can grow to be 10cm thick. They form on water that has some wave action and temperatures that are just below freezing. The agitation of the river, paired with the slowly dropping temperatures create an ideal environment for grease ice (a very thin layer of ice) to form in somewhat circular discs with a raised edge. While watching these pancakes glide downstream I could hear them bump into each other with an audible slosh.
These ice discs have long remained a mystery to lovers of the river valley. The dynamic season of winter is fast approaching, and everyday we encounter new formations appearing on the surface of the North Saskatchewan River. Our river is known for gently freezing into soft ice crystals since the water is constantly moving and being stirred up. The name for this clumpy ice is frazil ice! Today you may be learning some new words for ice. English isn’t the only language with many words to describe ice. In Nunavik, a dialect of Inuktitut, there are about ten words that describe ice and another dozen or so describe snow. When dealing with winter, we often need to be able to communicate the variability of conditions, and by exploring icy vocabulary we can uncover a lot about our surroundings.
I’m getting hungry thinking about this phenomenal phenomenon! Could I get a serving of iced pancake with extra maple syrup? Enough pancake talk… go out and enjoy our beautiful river valley during this icy season!