Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sounds from Yosemite's Frozen Lakes

This year we've been having a very strange winter in Northern California. It has been extremely dry, and between mid-November and mid-January almost no snow fell up in the mountains. Many roads in the high Sierras remained open long after their normal closing dates, including the Tioga Pass Road, the part of Hwy 120 that crosses the Sierras through Yosemite National Park, running past Tuolumne Meadows and over the 9943' Tioga Pass. In a normal year Tioga Pass Road closes in November and is accessible only to skiers and snowshoers until May or June, but this winter it remained open until January 18th. I was even able to go rock climbing in Tuolumne Meadows during both the New Years and Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekends!

New Years Eve at Tenaya Lake

While the lack of snow has been (and as of this writing, still is) a huge disappointment to skiers, it allowed people easy access to the high mountains in the middle of winter and enabled them to enjoy some unique recreational activities and unusual sounds. Lakes and rivers in the high country were frozen, but not buried in snow, and conditions were excellent for ice skating, ice climbing, ice hockey, ice bowling, para-skating and other frosty shenanigans.

When I arrived at Tenaya Lake (at 8150') on New Years Eve day, the lake was covered with people, some fearful and cautious, some exuberant and carefree, but all marveling at the thick layer of ice on its surface.

Scored by fissures, from minuscule to huge, and full of air bubbles, I found the lake ice endlessly fascinating. Seen from high above, giant cracks almost formed regular geometric patterns, while up-close small cracks resembled filigreed gauze, and bubbles modeled microorganisms and formed fantastical arrays of lines and shapes.
Furthermore, as the ice warmed in the late morning sun it made a variety of strange, loud sounds that echoed off the surrounding granite cliffs. Booming, cracking, whomping, thumping, twanging, and zinging all emanated from the lake. Sometimes I was startled and frightened as I felt vibrations directly underneath my boots, while other low bass sounds originated from distant parts of the lake and produced mesmerizing stereo effects.

I returned to Tuolumne Meadows two weeks later on January 13th with proper recording equipment, my friend Valerie Zimmer who works as a geologist in Yosemite (check out her blog), and Katy from the National Park Service's Natural Sounds Program. Val had already been recording frozen lake sounds for several days and reported that noises were happening as the ice warmed in the morning from about 9am until noon, then the lakes were quiet for a few hours in the middle of the day, and later whomping and cracking resumed in the late afternoon while the ice cooled.

Recording Tenaya Lake 1/13/2012 (photo by Valerie Zimmer)

Hoping to avoid noise from people and traffic, we arrived at Tenaya Lake on Friday morning. We chose a location about in the middle of the northern side of the lake, near the Murphy Creek trailhead, and a couple of hundred feet out from shore. Around 9am, just as sunlight started to warm the ice, I began recording. I used condenser microphones to capture the airborne sounds, and Val drilled holes in the ice with a giant drill bit so we could plant hydrophones in the ice itself. Tenaya Lake's ice was 7-8" thick and I found that I got the best sound when the hydrophones were placed about halfway down inside their holes (The holes filled up with water as soon as the drill broke through the bottom of the ice, and then began freezing closed again around the hydrophones).

Hydrophone installation/extrication tools
Hydrophone frozen into a hole in the ice (photo by Valerie Zimmer)

About the sound samples: For maximum enjoyment I recommend listening on high quality headphones or speakers. Since these are somewhat-large .wav files, if you have a slow internet connection it may take a few seconds for the audio to start playing after you click on a link.

Tenaya Lake, January 13, 2012, in the morning:

In the air at 9:35 am
(Senheiser MKH 40 and MKH 3o microphones pointing southwest, Sound Devices 702 recorder)

In the ice at 10:15 am
(2 Aquarian Audio H2a-XLR hydrophones embedded in the ice about 75 feet apart, Fostex FR2-LE recorder)

Eventually there was too much extraneous noise coming from cars, ice skaters and sightseers to capture any high-quality audio, so we decided to hike up to Lower Cathedral Lake in the hopes of recording the afternoon ice freeze undisturbed, or at least only interrupted by airplane noise.

Lower Cathedral Lake 1/13/2012
Luckily we were the only people up at Lower Cathedral Lake (9290') that day and, although the lake was relatively quiet when we first arrived, its grumblings grew louder and louder as the afternoon progressed. I set up near the eastern side of the lake, placing one pair of hydrophones nearer the shore (note the high-end crackling from shore ice in the recording), and another pair, plus my open-air mics farther out on the ice, closer to the lake's shady southeast corner.

Lower Cathedral Lake, January 13, 2012 in the afternoon:

In the air at 3:39pm
(Senheiser MKH 40 and MKH 3o microphones pointing south-southwest, Sound Devices 702 recorder)

In the ice far from shore at 3:35pm
(2 Aquarian Audio H2a-XLR hydrophones embedded in the ice about 75 feet apart, Fostex FR2-LE recorder)

In the ice nearer the shore at 4:02pm
(2 Aquarian Audio H2a-XLR hydrophones embedded in the ice about 75 feet apart, Edirol R44 recorder)

Lower Cathedral Lake and Cathedral Peak 1/13/2012

Two days later friends and I stopped at Tenaya Lake again on our way home. Although it was cold and windy that afternoon there were still quite a few hardy folks out playing on the ice and plenty of cars driving through the area. The lake was booming and fracturing loudly but trying to record in the air seemed completely futile. It was still fun, however, to capture the ice sounds via hydrophones, and lots of curious people skated or slid up to me to have a listen. I was set up several hundred feet out from the northern shore of the lake, underneath the middle of Stately Pleasure Dome.

Tenaya Lake, January 15, 2012, in the afternoon:

In the ice at 4:04pm (not much extraneous noise)
(2 Aquarian Audio H2a-XLR hydrophones embedded in the ice about 75 feet apart, Sound Devices 702 recorder)

In the ice at 4:07pm (with wind and ice skating sounds)
(2 Aquarian Audio H2a-XLR hydrophones embedded in the ice about 75 feet apart, Sound Devices 702 recorder)

Tenaya Lake 1/15/2012 (photo by Dan Kocevski)

That's it for now. I hope you enjoy these unique ice sounds, even though they are not from Antarctica!

Audio recordings © 2012 Cheryl E. Leonard. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, photos by Cheryl E. Leonard, © 2012 Cheryl E. Leonard. All rights reserved.

Update 1/8/19: Music composition made from these sounds now available
I developed a long (21:27!) music composition, Frozen Over, out of my Yosemite frozen lake field recordings, plus sounds from gongs, bells, rocks, and shells. It's included on the album Watershed and is available via Bandcamp as a digital download or on CD. You can also get the piece or the album from iTunes, or CD Baby. Happy listening!

For more lake ice sounds and information check out:

Dan Dugan's field recordings of Dog Lake (also in Tuolumne Meadows) from Jan 17, 2012:

Andreas Bick's posts about dispersion of sound in ice sheets:

Free download of sounds of snow and ice by various artists:

Music made with lake ice sounds:
Chants of Frozen Lakes by Marc Namblard
Fire and Frost Pattern by Andreas Bick

Valerie Zimmer on fun things to do on frozen lakes


  1. Fantastic recordings, thanks for posting this, Cheryl! It is particularly interesting to hear the differences between the locations and the various recording settings. I also liked how you got the stereo panorama mananged with your two hydrophones, this is a difficult thing to tackle. How did you come up with 75 feet distance? I had the same experience with placing the hydrophones inside the hole instead of letting them down deeper into the water. I wrote a blog post about your work on my site, if you don't mind: Good luck, Andreas

    1. Thanks Andreas!

      I didn't have a particular formula for placement of the hydrophones, I just thought it would be interesting to put them as far away from each other as the cables would reach. I suppose one could use the speed of sound in ice to calculate a spacing that parallels how humans hear in air, but I just went with my first instinct and was happy with how it sounded.


  2. Hi Cheryl,

    would you be interested in releasing some of your recordings ? I curate a couple of labels & would like to talk to you about a release. ta,

    1. Yes, I'm very interested. Please get in touch with me directly to talk about it. My contact email is posted here:

      Cheers, Cheryl

  3. Fascinating and beautiful work.

    Blogs like yours are a menace for a congenitally distracted home worker!

    1. I am happy to provide benevolent distractions for you.

  4. Hi, these sound wonderful! I've been recording ice up here in the Panhandle of Idaho. The same sounds up here. Some BG noise but I have got some decent recordings.

    Great sounds, Ice recording is a blast!


  5. Hi Cheryl, I was there at that lake on the same weekend you were, probably even the same day. I set my D50 on the ice and recorded. Not nearly as clean as yours, due to the ice skaters and hockey game, but a really fun coincidence. Great recordings!

  6. Great work Cheryl. Enjoyed the variety of recording angles. The proper conditions for capturing good ice sounds are rare indeed. We usually have too much snow here in Estonia to get such clear ice sounds, although I keep trying.

  7. Beautiful place this. Nice sounds and pictures.

    I really enjoy the sounds of the ice. For me the eveningsounds are in the same leauge as thunder. The other night i was on the ice for a few hours of recording, i did get some nice sounds but your recordings are far more clean..

    Thank you for sharing your work!

  8. My wife and I were out there on Tenaya at 3am in early January, 2012, photographing the night scene. We marveled at the sounds of the ice at that time of day, caused, apparently by the pressures of the winds that blew from the northeast and down-canyon across the lake. If near shore, the pressures acting on the ice layer as the skin of a drum would push water out under the ice sheet in miniature waves.

    Amazing and delightfully unique time opportunity with the cold and dry without the usual white insulating blanket. We enjoyed Siesta, Tenaya, Ellery, and Silver Lakes Tenaya and Silver had the ice hockey and skating, Siesta had thin snow and ski tracks; Ellery had 10+" ice and had only a handful of visitors.

    The other amazing scene was the sheer number of wind-downed trees near Tioga Pass. We stopped and explored more this past summer, and the feeling was one of Lord of the Ring's Cave Trolls had somehow escaped, and in frustration, swept his arms to knock down trees up to a dozen at a time. The apparently newly-installed NWS wind equipment atop Mammoth Mountain was pegged at 150mph for something like 3 hours on Nov 30/Dec 1, 2011. The Yosemite Park interpretive staff gained new homework that winter.

    Best Wishes,
    Richard Beebe
    N California

  9. We are amateur musicians from the Netherlands and created an audio track with sounds of cracking ice, maybe you like it.