What is true steam? | Essex Column

A snow shoe expedition on the southern flanks of Pokomoonshine Mountain will take place this Saturday morning to study animal tracks. Meet at 9:30 a.m. at the new parking area on Route 9 in Lewis, about a mile south of the former campground, and bring enough food and drink for a three or four hour endeavor. CATS is the sponsor. You might want to check out their website and vote on your favorite photograph in the soon to end photo contest.

One very cold and quiet evening last week, I was outside accompanying Ginny on her last foray of the day, and heard what sounded like distant fireworks. It was a low rumbling that brought to mind quarry blasting, but it went on and on. I thought the truck stop on the Northway was on fire, but nothing unusual over that way, and there were no fireworks to be seen. What I believe was happening was the sheet of ice covering our hay field was contracting in the extreme cold, and as it broke into large slabs it emitted deep booming noises. The next morning we went for a walk across the field and indeed, the ice had split into irregular sheets in the night. There’s another phenomenon called frost quake, which is when water saturated soil freezes rapidly due to a sudden plunge in temperature and then splits apart. Ice expands slightly as it forms, and in places like plowed parking lots, where there’s no snow to provide insulation, the ground can suddenly crack open thunderously as pressure from below is released. This occurs more commonly on sandy or gravelly soils and foundations can suffer damage.

On a cold day, what do you call it when you can see your breath? Most people say steam, although technically speaking, steam is invisible. If you’ve ever studied the spout of a boiling tea kettle, there is a gap between the end of the spout and the start of the water vapor cloud, and that gap is true steam. A high school chemistry teacher drilled that into my head, and nearly fifty years on it still seems wrong to refer to mist as steam. Pending the arrival of a better word, I’ll have to accept it.

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