Frigid and Flourishing: Freeze-Proof

This post series opened with Part 1, an exploration of some snow-dwelling lifeforms.

The sun sets on the Yukon Territory’s Porcupine River, slowly melting into a far-off, lazy oxbow, pouring its tangerine light one last time over the endless, icy stillness. It’s just before four in the afternoon, the New Year is soon approaching, and it is cold. Very, very cold. As the blue above dims, and the blinding mango creamsicle spectacle comes to a rapid close in the west, you can almost hear the river ice creak and wince in anticipation for what’s coming. It only got up to 20 below today. The nights have grown large this time of year, and cruel. First light won’t come for what seems like eternity, and by then, the air will be a devastating -60 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold enough to kill exposed human skin in a handful of minutes. Cold enough to turn even antifreeze-laden gasoline into flammable slush. Cold enough for breath to stiffen in an instant, collecting as a growing layer of biting rime on every hair on one’s own face; eyelashes, eyebrows, the whole bit. In the growing dark, nothing moves. Chickadees settle into tree cavities, and rapidly begin burning through the fat reserves they gained during the day’s feeding, all just to keep warm. Caribou huddle and lay low. Ptarmigan wriggle into the snow (surprisingly, for insulation), stoking their metabolic fires with a crop pouch full of food. To survive the night, Life winds down everywhere, becoming motionless and dipping unnervingly near death in a desperate attempt to stay alive.

Well, everywhere except within the cramped, moist layers of bark of the naked balsam poplars lining the riverbank, stony and brittle with the cold. In there, somehow, life stirs, pushing and wriggling its way through its frozen, wooden den. It’s a tiny beetle grub, a larva of the northern red flat bark beetle (Cucujus clavipes puniceus), no longer than the graphite tip of a well-sharpened pencil. It has no blanket of thick fur or fluffy feathers, no fat-powered metabolic oven to keep it warm. It is a bare-assed worm, twenty feet up in a barren, ligneous spire, sandwiched between the unrelenting sadism of the Arctic atmosphere and a block of nearly lifeless wood….possibly the worst possible location for cold exposure. And yet, it is comfortable, its teeny body barely noticing the silent, breath-stealing chill invading from outside the bark.

Why? Because when the frosty grip of boreal death extends its hand, the larval red flat bark beetle tells it to fuck off.


Not bad for something that looks like a condom filled with urine-flavored Jello.

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Frigid and Flourishing: Life in the Snowscape

Ice_Caitlyn_Wynne

It’s now January, which means that up here in the Northern Hemisphere, it is, generally speaking, the coldest time of year. The days are still short, barely rounding the bend from their shortest point on the solstice, and the sun cuts a tentative, shallow angle across bleak, sleepy skies, darting back under the horizon almost as soon as it emerged, as if it was trying to escape the nippy atmosphere and curl up under the warm cover of night.

The arrival into this annual temperature trough is sitting prominently in my mind these days for a variety of reasons:

  1. My beloved Seattle Seahawks, just this weekend, made a miraculous win in Minnesota, despite enduring the full, sub-zero fury of the Gopher State, with windchill reaching a lung-punching 20-below, making it the third coldest NFL game ever.
  2. The armed, self-described “militia” yokels currently more than a week and a half into squatting in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in my homeland of Oregon do so in a region of the state that suffers the most harrowing winter temperatures. A week ago, nighttime lows plummeted to 18-below (cold enough to turn the occupiers into Skoal-and-jerky flavored popsicles), and it hasn’t risen much since then, and won’t until March. There’s been some talk of cutting the power to the headquarters building, and simply waiting for the unyielding, unmitigated harshness of a high-desert January to bludgeon the everloving shit out of their seditionist tantrum.
  3. I recently returned from a trip to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula to visit family for the holidays, during one of the most anomalously snowy and cold weeks of the year, with the snowline slumping down nearly to sea level, invading rainforest river valleys that are almost guaranteed snow-free throughout the winter. My soft, Hawaii-resident body whined in the face of 25 degree temperatures, atypical for a comparatively mild area of coastal Washington.


Behold, nearby Mt. Baker, one of the snowiest places on planet Earth. If winter itself had its own mountain, this would be it.

Photo: Jake Buehler

Even back in my normally balmy Hawaiian Islands, it’s now cold. And by “cold” I mean that I occasionally get the shivers waking up early in the morning with the windows open, and I don’t become a sweat-slicked heap of misery and heat exhaustion when just sitting in my home office. Basically, “cold” in Honolulu is when daytime highs top out short of 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

We tend to think these cold conditions, whether they are just a seasonal inconvenience, or a year-round way of life (like up near the poles), as being particularly insufferable for life. When the landscape is buried under five feet of Winnipeg white, the ecosystem functions very differently. Vegetation isn’t accessible to many herbivores. Predators have a minuscule pool of animals to hunt. The temperatures are too low for “cold-blooded” animals like amphibians and reptiles to stay active. Plant growth grinds to a crawl. Everything trying to scrape by in the frozen stillness seems to either be on the verge of starving or freezing to death.

The truth is, however, that while many organisms make a great effort to put up with or evade (ala songbirds flying towards the equator for winter, or mammals that hibernate) freezing temperatures…there are a minority that have embraced these glacial surroundings. Organisms that have evolved extreme levels of cold-tolerance sit at the lower boundary of what is possible for life to persist. Because of them, the coldest parts of our planet actually teem with life, even if it doesn’t appear that way during on initial impressions.

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