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Thursday, January 14, 2016


Winter is here, at least in the frozen parts of the fly-over country that some of us call home. Coming out of a wet Autumn there is no shortage of ice around here, so what good uses can we find for it?

Building Material
Ice and snow are actually quite good as insulation. The classic igloo, a dome of snow/ice blocks, can maintain an internal temperature well above freezing since the interior layer melts and refreezes into an insulating layer of ice. 10 inches of light snow has the same R-value (a measure of insulation) as a 6 inch layer of fiberglass insulation, so packing snow around a structure can actually help keep extreme cold out. 

Packing snow on top of a structure (or simply not removing it), however, will require some consideration of the strength of the structure. I've seen flat roofs, and even some gently sloped ones, collapse under the weight of a single snowfall, and I don't live in an area that gets more than a foot or two of snow per storm. Areas around the Great Lakes and the Finger Lakes in upstate NY can get snow measured in tens of feet per year, but around here it takes a serious blizzard to dump more than a foot.

Snow “work-hardens”, which is a technical term for something that gets harder the more you mess with it. Light, fluffy snow takes on the consistency of Styrofoam after being shoveled around a few times and starts to resemble concrete if you keep moving it around.

If you add sawdust or some other form of fiber to water and then freeze it, you get Pykrete. 4% wood pulp and 96% water gives a substance that is as strong as concrete (as long as you keep it frozen). Pretty close to being bullet-proof as well as strong, Pykrete can make an environmentally friendly wind break/privacy fence.

Ice Fishing
There are some borderline lunatics who actually cut holes into the frozen surface of a lake and catch fish in the dead of winter. You have to wait until the dead of winter to have ice thick enough to be safe to travel on (see chart). Fun fact: scuba divers just north of me have great fun counting snowmobiles and ATVs on the bottoms of popular lakes. Fishing is always a good way to supplement your stored food, and ice fishing has one advantage over conventional fishing: no bugs.

Primitive Refrigeration
Ever hear your grandma call the 'fridge an “icebox”? Before electricity was ubiquitous, people would cut ice from lakes and streams in the winter and store it in ice-houses for use through the rest of the year. If there were no open bodies of water nearby, wooden forms were built and filled with water from the well and left outside to freeze overnight. Commercial ice-houses used industrial-sized refrigeration units to make blocks of ice, which were then delivered to houses that lacked electricity. Storing cold food in the kitchen was made possible by using a well-insulated box with a shelf on the top for a large chunk of ice and lower shelves or compartments for the food.

What we call a "cooler" when we go on a picnic or to the beach is actually an icebox, and there are some good ones (and a lot of bad ones) on the market. When I went camping in the past, a cooler full of food with 20 pounds of ice was good for a weekend -- we'd load it up Friday afternoon and there would still be ice in it Sunday evening when we got back. The cheap plastic coolers I've seen recently haven't held 20 pounds of ice for more than a day, but my off-road friends swear by the Yeti brand of coolers. Quite expensive, but worth it if you're going to want cold food and beverages for several days without power. They're also rated as bear-proof when you add a padlock, so they're serious gear.

Once the ice on a river or lake is thick enough to walk on, it can often open up new routes of travel. During the siege of Stalingrad during WW2, the defending Soviet troops had to wait for the Volga river to freeze before they could be reliably resupplied with food and ammunition. Many of the canals in northern Europe served for centuries as convenient routes of foot traffic (ice skate traffic, actually) once they froze over.
Ice boats are mostly one-man sailboats with runners attached to the bottom -- think of a cross between a kayak and an old-fashioned sled and you'll get the idea. For crossing large frozen lakes or traveling a frozen river ,an ice boat would be cheap (no fuel), fast (over 50 mph), and quiet. Larger ice boats were used in the 1800s for transportation to ice-bound lighthouses and for general shipping during the winter.

If your evacuation route has you going around a body of water during the winter, think about checking the thickness of the ice and taking a shortcut across it. With as many bodies of water as I have around here, it could save a lot of miles by not having to look for a bridge (which is a tactical choke point, anyway). Some of the small rivers in the area are in deep (15-20 feet) but not steep channels, so traveling on them would also reduce my visibility.

Nature is going to do what it wants, and complaining about it does nothing but annoy those around you. Keep looking for ways to utilize the things and conditions around you, even if they aren't what you would prefer.

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