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Weather Almanac for March 2002
WHERE ICE WORMS NEST
So runs the chorus of a popular Canadian folksong When The Ice Worms Nest Again often attributed to Klondike poet Robert W. Service. Its final line reference to ice worms likely derived from a legend attributed to the South Tuchone people of the southern Yukon region. Their legend tells of the emergence of giant ice worms from the glaciers of the St Elias Mountains and other Pacific coastal ranges. From deep within the permafrost, the ice worm emerges when the Midnight Sun vacates the northern sky. Its mission is to terrorize humans daring to trespass within its mountain lair. Finding a human victim, the ice worm attaches leech-like to an exposed area of flesh to suck the heat from the body, leaving behind a grey-white trail of dead skin.
During the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s, Elmer "Stroller" White, a newspaper columnist and editor of the Whitehorse Star, had written a fanciful tale of the giant ice worms and blue snows that appeared when the temperature dropped below minus 75 oF (minus 60 oC). His alleged interview with a 100-year old native man introduced the ice worm, a creature with a head on either end of its long slippery body that swelled to 1.2 metres (four feet) in length and which chirped lustily when the temperature hovered in the minus 70 to minus 80 oF (minus 57 to minus 62 oC) range for a few weeks.
The ice worm legends received a twist during the Klondike Gold Rush when seasoned "Sourdoughs" offered green prospectors, know as "Cheechakos" an ice-worm cocktail to test their mettle. In his "The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail," Robert W. Service described the "ice worm" dropped into the drink of the ostentatious Major Brown:
"Their bellies were a bilious blue, their eyes a bulbous red;
Though able to gulp the drink down, Brown paled and then bolted from Dawson. Service concluded the tale with the truth about the practical joke:
"For that ice-worm (so they told him) of such formidable size
Even today, the ice-worm cocktail is served as a novelty item to tourists and newcomers across Alaska and the Yukon.
But until recently, the ice worm remained primarily a legend. Although first discovered in 1887 by George Frederick Wright, a glacial geologist, on the Muir Glacier of southeastern Alaska, the true ice worms received none of the limelight of their mythical cousins for over a century.
Dwellers on the Ice
Ice worms are unique creatures, one of the few animals to complete their life cycle solely on glacial ice. Most are found on the glaciers of the Pacific coast and coastal mountain ice from Washington's Mount Rainier through British Columbia to the Alaskan and Yukon coasts.
Far from the giant ice worms of legend or the spaghetti-strand worms of joke, true ice worms are small creatures, averaging in length from a few millimetres to a centimetre (0.10 to 0.4 inches), and a millimetre (0.04 inches) or less in diameter. Scientifically, the ice worm is classified as a potworm (Enchytraeidae), related to the common earthworm. The species name Mesenchytraeus solifugus, roughly translates to "sun-avoiding worm." They are dark in colour, appearing as yellowish brown, reddish brown or black, and often resembling dark threads on the white ice they inhabit.
We are just beginning to learn the habits of these creatures, largely due to the field research of Professor Daniel Shain and colleagues of Rutgers University who have descended on Alaska's Byron Glacier (about 80 km (50 miles) southeast of Anchorage) to learn more about these amazing worms.
Ice worms appear to be permanent dwellers of the glacial ice rather than transients blown onto it by strong coastal winds -- as was once suggested. They live in small water pockets that exist among the ice crystals at or near the glacial surface. Surprisingly, ice worms have a relatively small temperature tolerance. Their ideal habitat temperature is around 0 oC (32 oF). If the temperature drops below minus 7 oC (20 oF), they will die from the cold. They cannot tolerate temperatures above 4 oC (40 oF), however, and will disintegrate at room temperature in about 15 minutes.
Fortunately, the ice worms' habitat range of Pacific coastal glaciers has a moderate, generally cloudy climate void of long periods of temperature extremes. This allows the worms to migrate perhaps a few metres vertically within the ice to keep within their tolerable temperature range. By burrowing into the ice, the ice worms can find fairly stable temperatures near the freezing point, even in mid-summer and mid-winter.
Using ultra-small bristles (setae) protruding from their body flanks, ice worms wriggle among the ice and snow crystals in search of food and optimal temperatures. They have been found as deep as a few metres (yards) in the glacial ice. Ice worms appear to avoid sunlight -- perhaps to prevent overheating by direct sunlight -- and they move to the surface to feed when it is dark, often doing so in large numbers. When on the surface, they feed on air-transported pollen grains and fern spores and on the red algae that live on the snow/ice surface.
Ice worms generally congregate in great colonies that have been estimated to contain from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of individuals, covering as much as 12 hectares (30 acres) of the glacial surface. Large colonies muddy the glacial white to grey-black plaid, a pattern formed by the thousands of thread-like worms.
Popular Interest in the Ice Worms
The scientific interest in ice worms is only beginning to catch up to their popularity with non-scientists. For years, the US Forest Service staff has conducted Ice Worm Safaris for visitors to Alaska's Portage Glacier during summer months to view these unique fauna.
The legendary Ice Worm is also celebrated through many winter festivals in northern communities where winter is a cause for celebration. With no resident groundhog to view, Cordova, Alaska, on Prince William Sound, celebrates February 4 as Cordova Ice Worm Day, and the first February weekend as the Cordova Ice Worm Festival which begins with a parade lead by a 100-foot worm. Later in the season -- late March -- Faro, Yukon celebrates the Ice Worm Squirm, a festival that features ice sculptures, snow and ice games and much food.
If you travel through the Alaska and Yukon regions today, you can still find establishments that will serve you an ice-worm cocktail so that you can "proclaim you're of the best, / A doughty Sourdough who has passed the Ice-worm Cocktail Test."
For full text of Robert W. Service's The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail, see http://ak.water.usgs.gov/glaciology/ballad_of_the_ice-worm_cocktail.htm
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