You cannot let icicles hang around

January 31, 2004|By ROB KASPER

AS I RISE to greet the winter morn, one of my first duties is whacking the icicles.

My whacker of choice varies, from the business end of a snow shovel to a broom handle to a baseball bat. The snow shovel clears out more icicles per swipe, the broom handle is easier to manipulate, but for pure distance and therapeutic purposes, nothing beats a baseball bat.

Why whack the icicles? Because they are there, hanging from the gutters on the shady side of my house, within safe striking distance of bedroom windows and back porches. The threat that icicles present - other than crashing down on passers-by - is that they can put on too much weight. Like "Fat Tony the Squealer," when an obese icicle goes down, it can take innocent bystanders with it. In particular, it can pull down gutters.

Yet icicles are also things of beauty, nature's free-form pieces of sculpture, glistening, dripping, growing by the minute. So I admire them and then, like the hunter who speaks to the deer before dispatching it, I whack away.

Speaking of beauty, there are some masterpieces, some real humdingers, hanging from rooftops around town right now. The week's combination of a heavy snowfall followed by warm days and freezing nights is nirvana, if you happen to be an icicle aficionado.

But as is true with so much of when it comes to beauty, an icicle's moment in the sun can be fleeting. One day it is in its glory, the next it has vanished.

For instance, one day this week, I marveled at an absolutely stunning collection of icicles adorning the side of Baltimore's "storm center" on Fallsway bordering the Jones Falls Expressway. The icicles displayed such style, such grace, and several looked like Jimmy Durante's nose. But the next morning, they resembled Michael Jackson's nose, virtually gone.

When confronting the cosmic question about icicles - why are they there - you get two answers. One from roofers and one from scholars.

According to roofers and their colleagues, the ventilators, icicles are indicative of a less than perfect roof. The most readable explanation of the life of roof ice that I found was on a Web site,, and it went something like this:

Icicles are caused by ice dams on the roof. Ice dams are formed when a roof has uneven temperatures, hot in the high spots, cold in the lower reaches. The snow melts too fast in the hot spots then slides down to cold spots, where it freezes, creating a jam. More melting water arrives and the overflow creates icicles.

The solution is to equalize the roof temperature. Since heating a roof would be too expensive, the alternative, according to this theory, is to give the roof a uniform chill. This is accomplished both by proper ventilation (bringing cold outside air into the attic) and by installing insulation (material that keeps heat inside your house, not leaking up toward the roof).

The attic, as we all know, is that unpleasant space between the roof and the ceiling of the top floor of the house. Old Baltimore rowhouses have very little attic space and decorative pierced front panels for ventilation, and this is perhaps one reason why this town has such spectacular icicles.

Anyway, this outside air flows into the attic through openings called soffits and ridge vents, and lowers the roof temperature, slowing down the rate the snow melts on the roof and thereby lowering the chances that ice dams and icicles can form. Or so the theory goes.

The roofers and ventilators also acknowledge that even with a most efficient ventilation system, some ice dams and icicles may appear. And so, as a safety valve, they recommend giving roofs the equivalent of waterproof underwear - they call it waterproofing shingle underlayment. This prevents backed-up water from seeping into the roof. All this preventive action has to be done in warm weather, well before the icicles form.

Scholars, like Keith C. Heidorn, have a more poetic view of icicles. Heidorn writes and produces The Weather Doctor, a Web site ( that he says is designed to educate the public about the beauty and science of weather.

After reading a piece about icicles posted on yet another Web site he contributes to (, I talked with Heidorn by telephone from his home in Victoria, British Columbia. While he doesn't see many icicles in Victoria, he said he saw plenty as a kid growing up outside Chicago, and as a graduate student at the University of Michigan and the University of Guelph in Ontario.

Icicles, Heidorn said, like winter weather, are neither "bad" nor "good," but are an interesting phenomenon of nature. They are formed, he explained, as a result of the competition between the pull of gravity and the surface tension of melting water. This competition produces ripples, and when the ripples freeze, an "icicle root" is born.

As more water flows over the root, it freezes in progressive layers, making the icicle grow. Young icicles tend to be long and lean, he said, older icicles thicker and fatter. Air bubbles are often trapped in the icicles, he said, giving them a milky glow.

When icicles form on the face of a cliff or at Niagara Falls, Heidorn reminded me, they are considered gorgeous. But, I reminded him, when they show up on your gutter, they lose a lot of their eye appeal.

Icicles, Heidorn and I agreed, are like real estate: It's all about location, location, location.

Until the thaw comes, I am going to be relocating the ones hanging on my gutters.

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