The most poorly understood weather term deadening the senses of American intelligence today is black ice. When it gets cold in these parts and snow or rain or sleet starts to fly, you know it is coming: An ominous warning about Black Ice!
You half expect Black Ice to rob you of your winter skivvies at the end of a half-cocked blunderbuss! It’s insulting.
Open your kitchen cutlery drawer and pull out a butter knife. Would you call that a Bowie knife?! No, you’re not that stupid. (Right?) But put some frozen stuff on the road and suddenly — at least according to the shiny faces on television news — you’re about to slip and fall and die because you failed to heed the caution of Black Ice.
And it should be no surprise that the fault for this foolishness rests squarely on the shoulders of those people whose profession it is to deliver chipper and chic stories about the day’s events. Why? Because “black ice” sounds sinister, obviously; it is scary and even sounds villainous. Turning a snowstorm into a black ice warning creates an event, it creates the news…but more importantly, it gives those silly people a chance to speak of things with a touch of gravitas!
“And now back to you, Frank!”
We have come full circle. Television news has devolved to take the place of yesteryear’s penny dreadfuls and thus it depends on sensational tropes and glorified melodrama. What could fit that bill better than Black Ice? Why it is right up there with mourning families and puppy mills.
Consider the history black ice/Black Ice. It is a malady that seems to have emerged ex nihilo during a rather frigid stretch of Minnesota weather in the 1970s. Predictably winter gave way and spring returned sending black ice into hibernation for a several following winters until a few prolonged stretches of unusually bad winter weather begged for a fresh and sensational ways to say the weather was really, really bad.
Enter: Black Ice.
Black ice is a unique weather phenomenon while Black Ice is merely a character in a charade.
In fact, I’m here to tell you right now that much of what people today describe as black ice would be more accurately called vanilla ice. It is merely frozen slush and snow covering the road. Slippery and hazardous to be sure, but to call everyday ice black ice takes away the significance of what black ice really describes. In fact, if you take the folks in the newsroom at their word, you probably have a few trays of black ice in your freezer right now. (Evacuate the house!)
So let me tell you what black ice in fact really is…Black ice is ice that forms not from precipitation like snow or rain or drizzle or even fog. Black ice forms from condensation. It appears unexpectedly in extreme cold conditions and often is hard to see (hence black ice) and thus poses a special safety concern.
You can sneak up on black ice unexpectedly which makes it dangerous. The folks in the newsroom want you to think Black Ice might sneak up on you!
Very often black ice forms at stop light intersections where cars stop during very bitterly cold weather. As cars idle at a red light, the exhaust from the cars freezes on the pavement, creating a patch of unexpected and difficult-to-see black ice. This rarely happens in the relatively balmy temps of typical snow and ice storms, by the way; as a matter of fact, busy roads tend to be safer than side streets and remote highways.
But it all is Black Ice today, alas.
I suppose I should let it go, but the transformation of black ice to Black Ice drives me absolutely nuts. When I hear it, I want to wash my ears out with soap. I have written many letters of complaint, but no avail. Only the occasional “thanks for watching” reply and a coffee mug. People don’t recognize the seriousness of it all. This is is a misunderstanding on par with not knowing the difference between dew points and relative humidity, after all, and it goes unchecked. And it all happens because newscasters are — surprise! surprise! — poorly informed and looking for a good spin rather than good information.
So join me now, please, and pledge to put black ice in its proper context. Fight and protest whenever Black Ice rears his frosty head and hold firmly to the truth…for the truth shall set you free. Walk in the faith that if you fall and break your hip or slide off the road, it likely wasn’t black ice that’s to blame, but just ice or slush or a cold, heartless rain.
But when it does get cold — really cold — and the moon is shining on a clear winter night, slow down! That’s when you might sneak up on the very real peril of black ice.
- Ice Patches on Roads in Arkansas (fox16.com)
- Blowing snow, black ice results in dangerous driving, multiple accidents on N.S. roads (metronews.ca)
- Driver, trooper injured as black ice causes accidents in southern Aroostook (bangordailynews.com)
- Driving in the winter (epicaauto.com)