Last week I wrote about the stillness of the ice and its capacity to take the movement out of the water or at least its surface. But, with the warm weather of the past week, there has been a lot of movement of that ice – and the stillness has been broken by some bizarre sounds. Everything from clinks to groans has echoed across the water. The variations are quite musical but also have an eerie and sometimes slightly creepy quality. The quality of their sound is unique and I wasn’t exactly sure why.

As it turns out, there is a lot of physics involved in sound. There are the obvious factors at play like the expansion and contraction of ice that happens when the temperature changes. Put an ice cube in a glass of water and listen to it closely as it starts to melt. There is a good deal of hissing and fizzing if you’re quiet enough. And, eventually the cube may break into pieces. When this happens on a large scale and big chunks of ice begin to crack, you don’t have to listen so closely. The most egregious example of this is when glaciers “calve”, meaning that large pieces break off, resulting in a thunderous boom.

The drama of these sounds is magnified by the way that sound travels across ice. Any hard surface can cause sound to reverberate or sometimes echo, but an expanse of ice stretching across water results in a slightly different effect. The sound travels across it quite clearly so that the pops and groans on the other side of a lake or cove can be heard far away. If you can find time in the early morning or around sunset as the temperature is changing to get out and listen, you’ll hear the movement in the ice. These are also some of the loveliest moments of the day in what can otherwise be overcast wintry days. When the sun is lowest it can peek under the low-hanging clouds and bring bright colors to an otherwise stark landscape.

Last week’s snowfall dampened all of these sounds to a degree. The thick blanket of snow insulated not only the water below but also the sounds that were coming from the movements of ice even as it shifted and cracked. The snow, however, generates its own sounds – gentle hushing as a pile full of it falls off into the water or odd squeaks as it gets crushed under foot.

After sharing my fascination with ice with family member who is a musician, he kindly pointed me towards an entire festival dedicated to making music with ice. In the small down of Geilo in Norway, they hold an annual Ice Music Festival – 2020 will be their 20th year. They don’t just listen to the music that the ice makes, they carve instruments out of ice and play whole suites of music. Think ice xylophones, horns and guitars. It’s worth looking up some of the music being made on YouTube to both see and hear what is being created – all with giant glaciers in the background. The event is a celebration not only of music, but also includes various art shows and lectures on climate science, a topic critically impacting where and how much ice is found in different areas of the globe.

If you’re not up for carving your own instruments, you can find an unexpected drum set among pieces of ice. A Russian percussion group called Ethnobeat played a performance on Lake Baikal in Siberia – the world’s deepest oldest lake. The lake is covered in ice that is a meter thick, so beating the ice to produce echo-y bongs was not problematic. It is an unexpected sound quite different than the creaking and groaning of movements of ice or the crashing of ice shattering. Although temperatures rarely get above zero, it sounds a bit like a Caribbean steel drum concert. This too is worth looking up and giving a listen to.

What I wonder is what all the creatures under the water hear when nature “plays” its ice instruments as well as when we create our own sounds on its surface.

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