Frost Quakes: Just So You’ll Know

From the blizzard of 2009–so far NO snow this winter.


Today’s new word is cryoseism–foreign to southerners but quite familiar to our deeply-frozen northern neighbors as “frost quakes.” They can be quite unsettling if you don’t know your earthquake from your cryoseism. Like exploding tree-sap (which we might see this week) the soil can literally swell and crack when its cold enough.

There have been numerous reports of these unsettling but generally harmless nighttime explosive booms, and its not out of the question that the phenom might happen as far south as Floyd County. While, in truth, it’s not likely to happen in Virginia, I thought you needed to be prepared so as to not panic Monday night should the earth crack under your front yard.

And if the under-thunder doesn’t weird you out, “Some reports have indicated the presence of “distant flashing lights” before or during a cryoseism, possibly due to electrical changes when rocks are compressed.” wikipedia


The nocturnal cracking noise I am most concerned about on nights like the one to come is a pipe quake–that sickening wee-hours bang that portends trouble, not the least of which may be “I told you so” from you-know-who. I’m thankful to say we’ve never had this happen–at least not in this house.

When the Goose Creek house (built circa 1870) got its first indoor plumbing in 1999, the water lines were buried below frost line from the new well to the house. We won’t likely have pipes freezing underground. However…

The porous original foundation consisted of the house corners sitting on big rocks with smaller stones chinked in to cover–but no indoor plumbing then so no biggie. The new foundation is cinderblock with foundation vents that ARE all closed. (I double-checked yesterday.)


Even so, with wind chills many degrees below zero overnight, we’ll leave the faucets dripping  tonight. You might want to think about it. Here’s why–from

Letting a faucet drip during extreme cold weather can prevent a pipe from bursting. It’s not that a small flow of water prevents freezing; this helps, but water can freeze even with a slow flow.

Rather, opening a faucet will provide relief from the excessive pressure that builds between the faucet and the ice blockage when freezing occurs. If there is no excessive water pressure, there is no burst pipe, even if the water inside the pipe freezes.

A dripping faucet wastes some water, so only pipes vulnerable to freezing (ones that run through an unheated or unprotected space) should be left with the water flowing. The drip can be very slight. Even the slowest drip at normal pressure will provide pressure relief when needed.

Where both hot and cold lines serve a spigot, make sure each one contributes to the drip, since both are subjected to freezing. If the dripping stops, leave the faucet(s) open, since a pipe may have frozen and will still need pressure relief.

Ah, spring–by which time I hope to still have a bit of firewood left.


Explained: The Polar Vortex split that we have to thank for this week’s icy blast from the Arctic. Progressive warming of north polar regions (and soon an ice-free arctic) may make such southern excursions much more common in future winters. So while the planet overall shows an unmistakable warming trend, we can still have colder cold spells in northern-hemisphere winters.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I love all info related to the solid phase of water, ever since I helped my former husband write his Freshman year teerm paper on the subject of water. Really fascinating substance!!

  2. As one who lives north of you (near Montreal, Quebec), I know of what you speak! (I actually just drove through Virginia yesterday on my way home from the holidays spent in Florida – talk about a reality check this morn!)

    I did not know about the “leaving the tap open to a trickle” though. Thanks! We are very well insulated here but I do know of some folks who may benefit from this knowledge.