Here's my most recent Huffington Post Blog -
The long New Jersey winter is finally finished. Even on these hot,
summer days, though, my thoughts turn to winter and its many lessons
some of which I may have actually learned. At the very least I had many
opportunities for learning.
I learned, for example, that when the
branches of the birch tree weighted down by heavy, wet snow touch the
ground they will once again reach toward the sky. I watched it happen.
The snow slowly melted. It fell in clumps to the ground. With each
splat of snow the branches became lighter until finally they were free
of their heavy burdens. I rejoiced with them. Lesson learned. Birch
trees are strong and resilient.
Some other lessons learned didn't seem quite so obvious at least to my new to the East Coast mentality.
learned that a gravel driveway can't be adequately plowed. The snow
falls. The plow must leave at least three inches of snow or take away
all the gravel. When the temperatures rise the snow melts into water.
The temperature falls. The water freezes and soon the driveway looks
more like a skating rink than something appropriate for either person or
vehicle. Lesson learned -- either pave the driveway or learn to skate.
learned that if trash and recycled containers are in a fenced area and
if the gate to the fenced area is located in a place where water gathers
and if the gate is closed when the water freezes the gate can't be
opened especially if the gathered water is an inch or two deep which
means that the ice is deep enough to keep the gate closed for quite some
time. Along those same lines I also learned that a household could go a
few weeks before putting out the trash becomes an urgent issue. Lesson
learned. Leave the gate open if temperatures are expected to drop
I also learned that chipping away the ice into
which the gate was frozen and ultimately opening the gate doesn't solve
the entire problem. In that same learning opportunity I also learned
that trash and recycled containers also freeze to the ground. Lessons
learned. First lesson learned was that it's pretty hard to dislodge
frozen trash and recycled containers without tearing gaping holes into
the bottoms of the containers. Second lesson learned, come winter it's a
good idea to put those containers in a place where they won't freeze to
the ground or to the cement without actually putting them inside the
While I was chipping away at the ice holding the frozen
gate, a trusted family member suggested that I pour boiling water onto
the ice. That seemed like a good idea so I put the teakettle on the
burner. When it whistled I put on my heavy coat, went outside, and
poured the boiling water onto the ice. I listened to the crackling and
the hissing and then watched as the ice seemed to grow in size and hold
the gate closed in an even tighter grip. The trusted family member
called back a few minutes later.
"Don't pour boiling water on the ice. It might blow up!"
She had consulted with a friend who grew up in Maine.
in the learning process it's important to consult with an expert. My
good friend, Alan Levine, is expert at many things. I called him to
find out if pouring boiling water on ice really could cause an
"Yes," he said. "But only under certain circumstances."
then explained that if you put ice cubes in a glass and pour room
temperature water over them the ice starts to make noise and crack. If
you pour boiling water over ice cubes it will do more of that. In fact,
we might even call what happens in that situation an explosion. This
happens because the ice cubes themselves take time for the temperature
to even out. The ice cube is hot on the outside and cold on the inside
so there's a large temperature gradient. Frankly, I'm not sure I
understood the physics behind his message, but I trust Alan completely.
to find out Alan holds a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Brown
University. His specialty is fluid dynamics. Before my call I only
knew that he held a Ph.D. in something I didn't quite understand and was
my good friend. Anyway, here's what Alan had to say (in my words not
his): Water is, in addition to being the world's most valuable
resource, very unique in its behavior. It really can change from steam
to liquid to ice and still be water. Also, I actually could have melted
the ice with the boiling water if I had only wanted to melt a very
small area. The problem was that I wanted to melt a much larger area,
say the area keeping the gate closed. The entire area of ice holding
the gate needed to rise above 32 degrees for it to melt. My little
teakettle didn't come close to raising the temperature of the entire
This phenomenon depended on the difference in temperatures
(boiling water and ice) and the speed the boiling water is poured over
the ice. A high gradient in temperature determines whether or not it
explodes because whether or not ice explodes depends on temperature.
Most things contract as they get colder. So does water until it reaches
39 degrees F at which point it starts getting bigger. If the
temperature had been around 32 degrees when I poured the boiling water
on the ice and if I had poured it rapidly on the ice I might have solved
one problem while creating a completely different one. That's the way
it sometimes is with explosions.
Alan also reminded me that the
fact that water expands as it gets colder is what makes ice float. Ice
is less dense than water. Most substances when they freeze fall to the
bottom of their container. Not so with water. Unless we really freeze
the whole thing it will always be ice on top and liquid underneath.
This phenomenon is true only for water.
Lessons learned. Never
hesitate to consult with a good friend. Also pouring boiling water from
a small teakettle onto a large chunk of ice won't free the gate. Also,
though probably not such an urgent lesson learned, it's really unlikely
that the ocean will ever freeze solid.
Alan also reminded me to
never try and lick a frozen pipe. Little did he know that I learned
that lesson during my childhood. I am not, however, going to expand on
that particular learning opportunity.
I also learned that even the
harshest of winters will end and spring will come even if it has to
sneak in between seasons. I learned that snow creates a magical
silence. I also learned that as surely as it ended, winter will return.
winter I will try to remember the birch trees and their ability to
resume despite heavy loads their reaching for that which is higher than
Lesson learned. Life goes on.