The Biography of an Ice Pile


2016-01-23 08.35.06I love snow and cold (although I hate ice) and, for the most part, this winter did not come through for me.

But there was one exception: a blizzard in late January that dumped a couple of feet of snow on Washington. I ran around in the snow with dogs and did snow angels and appreciated, yet again, living in an apartment where snow removal is someone else’s problem. Indeed, snow removal was a big problem for a lot of people. It took a long time; the commute was messed up for days after the snow stopped.

At the transit center in Silver Spring, Md. a whole lot of snow had to be removed from the top deck of the concrete structure. Someone apparently thought the best thing to do with all of that snow was to dump it over the side, onto a bit of land that was originally supposed to hold a hotel or something but is currently holding a very steep hill and a lot of weeds.

And that is where our story begins.

Two weeks after the snow ended, it was gone from almost everywhere. The temperature had made it over 60. But the snow pile hung on, hugging the eastern wall of the transit center.

Monday, February 8
Monday, February 8

It seemed to make its own weather–once I walked by and noticed a cold fog in the low area. I noticed that the piles weren’t actually touching the building. Was the wall absorbing and radiating heat? Maybe it expands and contracts as the sun comes and goes?

Wednesday, Feb 10
Wednesday, Feb 10

Every time I went by, the snow was still there. As the temperature wandered between the teens and the 60s, the pile got a little smaller and eventually split into distinct piles.

Wednesday, March 2
Wednesday, March 2

In early March it started to really seem impressive that the piles were still hanging on.

Thursday, March 10
Thursday, March 10

I mean, that’s some perseverance. At this point, it had been seven weeks since the town-crippling blizzard, temperatures had made it over 80, and this snow was still there, surrounded by its halo of melted-out gravel and crushed cardboard boxes.

Monday, March 21
Monday, March 21

The smaller pile gave up the fight; the larger struggled on. It seemed like it couldn’t be long now, and I started taking pictures more often, thinking each might be the last.

Thursday, March 24, 8:42 a.m.
Thursday, March 24, 8:42 a.m.

Even twice a day.

Thursday, March 24, 5:14 p.m.
Thursday, March 24, 5:14 p.m.

This was the point when I realized that several of my friends who were following the adventures of the snow pile on Facebook didn’t realize how big it was. So the next morning I tried to remedy this, first by placing my sketchbook on the snowpile for scale.

Friday, March 25, 8:59 a.m.
Friday, March 25, 8:59 a.m., with 5.5″-square sketchbook for scale. (It got muddy.)

Then I clarified the size once and for all by getting one of the guys standing on the path to take a picture of me standing next to it. They turned out to be some kind of public transportation consultants, in town to help people from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (which runs the metro, and also this transit center) update the maps and signs to reflect changes in bus service.

Friday March 25, 9 a.m., with science writer for scale
Friday March 25, 9 a.m., with science writer for scale. It’s bigger than you thought, right?

Washington’s famous cherry blossoms reached peak bloom.

Friday, March 29
Tuesday, March 29

It got so small, there wasn’t much point in taking a picture from far away.

Wednesday, March 30, 5:05 p.m.
Wednesday, March 30, 5:05 p.m.

On the last day of March, I walked down at lunchtime to check on the ice.

March 31, 2016
March 31, 2016, 12:34 p.m.

I had such hopes that the snow would make it to April. I even started thinking about what friends I might be able to talk into coming to check with me at midnight, and imagined us crawling around with headlamps looking for signs of ice. (One friend refused. The others either didn’t see my message or pretended they hadn’t.)

March 31, 2016, 5:54 p.m.
March 31, 2016, 5:54 p.m. (I commute in different shoes.)

The last of the ice that froze and fell out of the sky January 22nd and 23rd melted into the ground on the afternoon of March 31st. It was just a pile of ice, but it was also a memory of winter that hung on well into the spring. Other ice piles have made it longer–after Boston’s epic winter of 2014-2015, one giant pile of snow and garbage, cleared from the streets and piled in a parking lot, didn’t melt until the middle of July. But this one was right on my commute where I could see it every day and check in on the final remnants of the passing season.

It’s full-on spring now, an unusually forgiving one. Some years, we have winter, then a week or so of pleasant weather, then summer. But this year spring has stuck around, cool in the evening and warm in the day. Soon summer will cover the region in blanket of horrible humidity. But winter will come again, and snow removal will probably cause problems again, and maybe another cold, muddy monument will arrive to entertain commuters.

Photos: Helen Fields, because I can’t afford to commute with a professional photographer

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3 thoughts on “The Biography of an Ice Pile

  1. Helen, monitoring the snow pile in front of our Kensington, MD, house was the science fair project for our son maybe 20 years ago. Forgotten the grade he got, but he went on to graduate from college, albeit as an English major.

  2. As a native-New Yorker who now lives in South Carolina (and had for the past 13 years), I found this utterly charming . My new home gets snow about once every two years and it is usually melted by noon.

  3. I enjoyed how your chronicling of this snowbank turned it into a character of sorts. More folks should take the time to document these kinds of events. Thanks to Henry David Thoreau, we have good baseline data on the phenology of plant flowering times for his area, which is invaluable in helping to assess climate change. We had a project similar to your snowbank. We’d walk our dog past a large puddle on a road shoulder. Come February, pollywogs would swim about and we’d urge them on to adulthood before the April and May sunshine evaporated their small pond.

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