Every year around the week before Christmas, the Old Farmer’s Almanac warns its readers to avoid a weather phenomenon called “pogonip,” an icy winter fog that was evident in parts of Highland County Tuesday morning as droplets of water vapor clung to objects overnight and froze, giving them a shimmering glow at sunrise — and while the almanac says the fog can be dangerous, a local doctor says it amounts to nothing more than a pretty sight.
Though the fog was known out west by the charming Native American name “pogonip,” it was also nicknamed “the white death,” since the almanac said according to indigenous tradition that breathing the fog could be injurious to the lungs.
But Dr. Matthew Studebaker of Adena Health Center’s Hillsboro Urgent Care told The Times-Gazette that the pioneer belief is essentially an old wive’s tale, and there is nothing to be worried about.
“I would approach it from this standpoint,” he said, “it’s frozen water vapor and you inhale water vapor all the time, and if you inhale something that’s cold, it may feel cold to you at first, but once it gets past your pharynx, your body heats it up and it’s no health concern.”
This year’s almanac has the pogonip “warning” posted on Dec. 18, sandwiched between an old saying about snowfall on Dec. 17 and the 2016 death of actress Zsa Zsa Gabor on Dec. 19.
The almanac says it came from an old Shoshone word used to describe the frozen fogs of fine ice needles that occur in the mountain valleys of the Western United States in December.
As the story goes, according to dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster, English-speaking settlers who went out west in the mid-1800s encountered this unusual and sometimes scary phenomenon, and when they needed a word for it, they borrowed the word “payinappih,” which means “cloud” in the Shoshone tongue and altered it to “pogonip.”
The first recorded use of the word, according to Merriam-Webster, was at the end of the Civil War in 1865.
The National Weather Service says that pogonip can also present itself as a dense fog that occurs during the winter months, containing suspended frozen ice crystals.
Studebaker suggested that rather than being harmful, the cold air could actually help those with breathing issues when inhaled.
“We’ve had kids come in that were suffering from bronchiolitis,” he said, “and I’ve told parents to open the freezer door and have them stand in front of it and take deep breaths, and the cold air will actually help to relax their airways. Children’s hospitals use this technique in their cool mist vapor tents.”
His conclusion is, from a skilled medical professional’s perspective, that inhaling the frozen fog of the pogonip is also no different than inhaling the vapor from the current generation of electronic cigarettes. However, he did recommend leaving out the flavoring and the nicotine.
Dangerous or not, the frozen fog gave area trees especially a jewel-like, sparkling appearance on Tuesday that was reminiscent of the Christmas trees decorating many Highland County homes — reminding locals that Christmas is just weeks away.
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.