Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by  Anna Botsford Comstock


Fog on Mount Tamalpais, California.

Photo by G. K. Gilbert.

Water Forms

Teacher's Story

Water, in its various changing forms, is an example of another overworked miracle—so common that we fail to see the miraculous in it. We cultivate the imagination of our children by tales of the Prince who became invisible when he put on his cap of darkness, and who made far journeys through the air on his magic carpet. And yet no cap of darkness ever wrought more astonishing disappearances than occur when this most common of our earth's elements disappears from under our very eyes, dissolving into thin air. We cloak the miracle by saying "water evaporates," but think once of the travels of one of these drops of water in its invisible cap! It may be a drop caught and clogged in a towel hung on the line after washing, but as soon as it dons its magic cap, it flies off in the atmosphere invisible to our eyes; and the next time any of its parts are evident to our senses, they may occur as a portion of the white masses of cloud sailing across the blue sky, the cloud which Shelley impersonates:

"I am the daughter of Earth and Water,

And the nursling of the Sky;

I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;

I change, but I cannot die."

We have, however, learned the mysterious key-word which brings back the vapor spirit to our sight and touch. This word is "cold." For if our drop of water, in its cap of darkness, meets in its travels an object which is cold, straightway the cap falls off and it becomes visible. If it be a stratum of cold air that meets the invisible wanderer, it becomes visible as a cloud, or as mist, or as rain. If the cold object be an ice pitcher, then it appears as drops on its surface, captured from the air and chained as "flowing tears" upon its cold surface. And again, if it be the cooling surface of the earth at night that captures the wanderer, it appears as dew.

But the story of the water magic is only half told. The cold brings back the invisible water vapor, forming it into visible drops; but if it is cold enough to freeze, then we behold another miracle, for the drops are changed to crystals. The cool window-pane at evening may be dimmed with mist caught from the air of the room; if we examine the mist with a lens we find it composed of tiny drops of water. But if the night be very cold, we find next morning upon the window-pane exquisite ferns, or stars, or trees, all formed of the crystals grown from the mist which was there the night before. Moreover, the drops of mist have been drawn together by crystal magic, leaving portions of the glass dry and clear.

If we examine the grass during a cool evening of October we find it pearled with dew, wrung from the atmosphere by the permeating coolness of the surface of the ground. If the following night be freezing cold, the next morning we find the grass blades covered with the beautiful crystals of hoar frost.

If a raincloud encounters a stratum of air cold enough to freeze, then what would have been rain or mist comes down to us as sleet, hail or snowflakes, and of all the forms of water crystals, that of snow in its perfection is the most beautiful; it is, indeed, the most beautiful of all crystals that we know. Why should water freezing freely in the air so demonstrate geometry by forming, as it does, a star with six rays, each set to another, at an angle of 60 degrees? And as if to prove geometry divine beyond cavil, sometimes the rays are only three in number—a factor of six—and include angles of twice 60 degrees. Moreover, the rays are decorated, making thousands of intricate and beautiful forms; but if one ray of the six is ornamented with additional crystals the other five are decorated likewise. Those snow crystals formed in the higher clouds and, therefore, in cooler regions may be more solid in form, the spaces in the angles being built out to the tips of the rays including air spaces set in symmetrical patterns: and some of the crystals may be columnar in form, the column being six-sided. While those snow crystals formed in the lower currents of air, and therefore in warmer regions, show their six rays marvellously ornamented. The reason why the snow crystals are so much more beautiful and perfect than the crystals of hoar frost or ice, is because they are formed from water vapor, and grow freely in the regions of the upper air. Mr. W. A. Bentley, who has spent many years photographing the snow crystals, has found more than 1300 distinct types.


Composite snow crystal formed in high and medium clouds.

Photomicrograph by W. A. Bentley.

The high clouds are composed of ice crystals formed from the cloud mists; such ice clouds form a halo when veiling the sun or the moon.


Snow crystal formed in high clouds.

Photomicrograph by W. A. Bentley.

When the water changes to vapor and is absorbed into the atmosphere, we call the process evaporation. The water left in an open saucer will evaporate more rapidly than that in a covered saucer, because it comes in contact with more air. The clothes which are hung on the line wet, dry more rapidly if the air is dry and not damp; for if the air is damp, it means that it already has almost as much water in it as it can hold. The clothes will dry more rapidly when the air is hot, because hot air takes up moisture more readily and holds more of it than does cold air. The clothes will dry more rapidly on a windy day, because more air moves over them and comes in contact with them than on a still day.


Blizzard type of snow crystal formed in low clouds.

Photomicrograph by W. A. Bentley.

If we observe a boiling teakettle, we can see a clear space of perhaps an inch or less in front of the spout. This space is filled with steam, which is hot air saturated with hot water vapor. But what we call "steam" from a kettle, is this same water vapor condensed back into thin drops of water or mist by coming into contact with the cooler air of the room. When the atmosphere is dry, water will boil away much more rapidly than when the air is damp.

The breath of a horse, or our own breath, is invisible during a warm day; but during a cold day, it is condensed to mist as soon as it is expelled from the nostrils and comes in contact with the cold air. The one who wears spectacles finds them unclouded during warm days; but in winter the glasses become cold out of doors, and as soon as they are brought into contact with the warmer, damp atmosphere of a room, they are covered with a mist. In a like manner, the window-pane in winter, cooled by the outside temperature, condenses on its inner surface the mist from the damp air of the room.

The water vapor in the atmosphere is invisible, and it moves with the air currents until it is wrung out by coming into contact with the cold. The air thus filled with water vapor may be entirely clear near the surface of the earth; but, as it rises, it comes in contact with cooler air and discharges its vapor in the form of mist, which we call clouds; and if there is enough vapor in the air when it meets a cold current, it is discharged as rain and falls back to the earth. Thus, when it is very cloudy, we think it will rain, because clouds consist of mist or fog; and if they are subjected to a colder temperature, the mist is condensed to rain. Thus, often in mountainous regions, the fog may be seen streaming and boiling over a mountain peak, and yet always disappears at a certain distance below it. This is because the temperature around the peak is cold and condenses the water vapor as fast as the wind brings it along, but the mist passes over and soon meets a warm current below and, presto, it disappears! It is then taken back into the atmosphere. The level base of a cumulus cloud has a stratum of warmer air below it, and marks the level of condensation.

At the end of the day, the surface of the ground cools more quickly than the air above it. If it becomes sufficiently cold and the air is damp, then the water from it is condensed and dew is formed during the night. However, all dew is not always condensed from the atmosphere, since some of it is moisture pumped up by the plants, which could not evaporate in the cold night air. On windy nights, the stratum of air cooled by the surface of the earth is moved along and more air takes its place, and it therefore does not become cold enough to be obliged to yield up its water vapor as dew. If the weather during a dewy night becomes very cold, the dew becomes crystallized into hoar frost. The crystals of hoar frost are often very beautiful and are well worth our study.


Dew on spider's web;
Dewdrops on strawberry leaf;
Hoar frost on strawberry leaf.

Photographs by W. A. Bentley.

The ice on the surface of a still pond begins to form usually around the edges first, and fine, lancelike needles of ice are sent out across the surface. It is a very interesting experience to watch the ice crystals form on a shallow pond of water. This may easily be seen during cold winter weather. It is equally interesting to watch the formation of the ice crystals in a glass bottle or jar. Water, in crystallizing, expands, and requires more room than it does as a fluid; therefore, as the water changes to ice it must have more room, and often presses so hard against the sides of the bottle as to break it. The ice in the surface soil of the wheat fields expands and buckles, holding fast in its grip the leaves of the young wheat and tearing them loose from their roots; this "heaving" is one cause for the winter-killing of wheat. Sleet consists of rain crystallized in the form of sharp needles. Hail consists of ice and snow compacted together, making the hard, more or less globular hailstones.


Frost crystals on window-pane.

Photo by W. A. Bentley.

Lesson CCXXI

Water Forms

Leading thought—Water occurs as an invisible vapor in the air and also as mist and rain; and when subjected to freezing, it crystallizes into ice and frost and snow.

Method—The answers to the questions of this lesson should, as far as possible, be given in the form of a demonstration. All of the experiments suggested should be tried, and the pupils should think the matter out for themselves. In the study of the snow crystals a compound microscope is a great help, but a hand lens will do. This part of the work must be done out of doors. The most advantageous time for studying the perfect snow crystals is when the snow is falling in small, hard flakes; since, when the snow is soft, there are many crystals massed together into great fleecy flakes, and they have lost their original form. The lessons on frost or dew may be given best in the autumn or spring.


1. Place a saucer filled with water near a stove or radiator; do not cover it nor disturb it. Place another saucer filled with water near this but cover it with a tight box. From which saucer does the water evaporate most rapidly? Why?

2. We hang the clothes, after they are washed, out of doors to dry; what becomes of the water that was in them? Will they dry more rapidly during a clear or during a damp day? Why? Will they dry more rapidly during a still or during a windy day? Why? Will they dry more rapidly during hot or cold weather? Why?

3. Watch a teakettle of water as it is boiling. Notice that near its spout there is no mist, but what we call steam is formed beyond this. Why is this so? What is steam? Why does water boil away? Do kettles boil dry sooner on some days than on others? Why?

4. If the water disappears in the atmosphere where does it go? Why do we say "the weather is damp"? What force is it that wrings the water out of the atmosphere?

5. Why does the breath of a horse show as a mist on a cold day? Why do persons who wear spectacles find their glasses covered with mist as soon as they enter a warm room after having been out in the cold? Why do the window-panes become covered with mist during cold weather? Is the mist on the outside or on the inside? Why does steam show as a white mist? Why does the ice pitcher, on a warm day, become covered on the outside with drops of water? Would this happen on a cold day? Why not?


Forms of hoar frost.

Photo by W. A. Bentley.

6. Why, when the water is invisible in the atmosphere, does it become visible as clouds? What causes the lower edges of cumulus clouds to be so level? What is fog? Why do clouds occur on mountain peaks? What causes rain?

7. What causes dew to form? When the grass is covered with dew, are the leaves of the higher trees likewise covered? Why not? What kind of weather must we have in order to have dewy nights? What must be the atmosphere of the air in relation to that of the ground in order to condense the dew? Does dew form on windy nights? Why not? Does all dew come from the air, or does some of it come from the ground through the plants? Why is not this water, pumped up by the plants, evaporated?

8. What happens to the dew if the weather becomes freezing during the night? What is hoar frost? Why should water change form when it is frozen? How many forms of frost crystals can you find on the grass on a frosty morning?

9. When a pond begins freezing over, what part of it freezes first? Describe how the first layer of ice is formed over the surface.

10. Place a bottle of water out of doors in freezing weather. How does the ice appear in it at first? What happens later? Why does the bottle break? How is it that water which has filled the crevices of rocks scales off pieces of the rock in cold weather? Why does winter wheat "winter-kill" on wet soil?

11. Why does frost form on a window-pane? How many different figures can you trace on a frosted pane? Are there any long, needlelike forms? Are there star forms? Can you find forms that resemble ferns and trees? Do you sometimes see, on boards or on the pavement, frost in forms like those on the window-pane?

12. When there is a fine, dry snow falling, take a piece of dark flannel and catch some flakes upon it. Examine them with a lens, being careful not to breathe upon them. How many forms of snow crystals can you find? How many rays are there in the star-shaped snow crystals? Do you find any solid crystals? Can you find any crystals that are triangular? When the snow is falling in large, feathery flakes, can you find the crystals? Why not?

13. What is the difference between a hailstone and a snow crystal? What is sleet?

Supplementary reading—Water Wonders, Thompson; Forms of Water, Tyndall.


High cloud snow crystal.

Photomicrograph by W. A. Bentley.

"When in the night we wake and hear the rain

Which on the white bloom of the orchard falls,

And on the young, green wheat-blades,

where thought recalls

How in the furrow stands the rusting plow,

Then fancy pictures what the day will see—

The ducklings paddling in the puddled lane,

Sheep grazing slowly up the emerald slope,

Clear bird-notes ringing, and the droning bee

Among the lilac's bloom—enchanting hope—

How fair the fading dreams we entertain,

When in the night we wake and hear the rain!"

—Robert Burns Wilson.

"The thin snow now driving from the north and lodging on my coat consists of those beautiful star crystals, not cottony and chubby spokes, but thin and partly transparent crystals. They are about a tenth of an inch in diameter, perfect little wheels with six spokes without a tire, or rather with six perfect little leaflets, fern-like, with a distinct straight and slender midrib, raying from the center. On each side of each midrib there is a transparent thin blade with a crenate edge. How full of creative genius is the air in which these are generated! I should hardly admire more if real stars fell and lodged on my coat. Nature is full of genius, full of divinity. Nothing is cheap and coarse, neither dewdrops nor snowflakes."

"A divinity must have stirred within them before the crystals did thus shoot and set. Wheels of storm-chariots. The same law that shapes the earth-star shapes the snow-stars. As surely as the petals of a flower are fixed, each of these countless snow-stars comes whirling to earth, pronouncing thus, with emphasis, the number six."

Thoreau's Journal.


Composite snow crystal; the center formed in a high cloud and the margins in a lower cloud.

Photomicrograph by W. A. Bentley.

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