Last weekend danger lurked around every corner. Sharpshooters waited ominously for just the right time to strike but luckily the weather warmed and the threat melted away.
The blizzard of 2013 left us more than just a winter wonderland. As temperatures slowly increased, glimmering, glamorous icicles formed on the edges of buildings and vehicles, causing me to consider wearing a hard hat to accompany my scarf and gloves.
It wouldn’t be overkill when you consider that icicles can be deadly. These ice spears can grow to significant sizes and break off without warning, becoming dangerous daggers. No credible records exists that document the largest icicle ever, but in the case of these spectacular spikes, size doesn’t matter.
The cold hard facts are that there are fatalities every year caused by icicle impalements. In the United States, approximately 15 deaths per year are attributed to this type of peculiar piercing. At least we don’t live in Russia or Chicago, the two areas of the world that are ground zero for icicle strikes. In one particularly bad year, 74 injuries were reported in Moscow alone.
The stories of these wintertime weapons are tragic. The first record of this type of accident was chronicled in Devonshire, England in 1776. A young boy was killed and his family chose to remember the calamity with this epitaph on his gravestone:
Bless my i,i,i,i,i,i
Here he lies
In a Sad Pickle
Kill’d by an Icicle.
On this side of the pond was a Michigan police officer who literally lost his head when an icicle dropped directly on him in 1903. Another Chicago victim was Donald Booth, whose family sued the department store from which the icicle fell, and was awarded a $4.5 million settlement. Surely the money was no consolation for their loss. Anyone who has stepped out of the way just in time knows that this menace is not breaking news. And there is no telling when or where the next icicle will fall. The origin of an icicle is easier to predict. Icicles form when water drips and freezes. Often they appear when the temperature hovers around freezing. They are apt to form on the edge of your roof and other buildings because rising heat increases the temperature of the roof, melting water that drips down, which then cools and refreezes.
While the carrot-shaped icicle is typical, other shapes can occur. The carrot shape results from the laws of physics. Water droplets, as they drip down the icicle, give off heat. This heat rises and as the rising air removes heat from the liquid water, some of the water freezes and the icicle grows thicker and elongates.
If you are super-safety-conscious, gutterguards can be installed to prohibit the development of icicles. One can, of course, be careful when walking under buildings, but this is less practical in a large city. In any case, be aware of what is hanging over you. There is a spike in the number of these ‘evesdroppers’ around this time of year!
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.