The western Native Americans called it “white death” because it would be inhaled into the lungs and the ice crystals would cause internal bleeding, pneumonia, and death. “White death” wasn’t what the English settlers heard back in the 1800s they simply heard “pogonip”.
If they would have known the local language then they would have been able to interpret the cryptic meaning, but they didn’t so they had to learn what it was the hard way. Pogonip is simply very extreme fog, the kind of fog that is so extreme that ice crystals hang suspended in midair.
It sounds like something from a fantasy novel, but Mother Nature’s brutal sense of humor isn’t anything close to fantasy, it is very real. In elevated and mountainous areas with low temperatures and high humidity pogonip forms, and when it does the world is put on hold.
Near the polar ends of the earth, there is a similar phenomenon called diamond dust. This is comparable but should not be confused with pogonip because this happens with low precipitation and extremely low temperatures.
Diamond dust is a ground-level cloud made of ice crystals, similar to pogonip but much smaller and a lot less dense. In pogonip, you wouldn’t be able to see 20 feet in front of you, but in diamond dust, the scenery remains quite clear.
To protect yourself against this fantastically beautiful death traps you need to have thick clothes and a mask of some sort. A bandana will do alright to filter any ice crystals from getting in your lungs.
The lungs are very susceptible to ice crystals, and if they are thick enough and cold enough they may not melt immediately, which could result in some internal tearing. When your lungs start bleeding inside your chest you are in a pretty rough position.
Have you ever seen a movie where someone coughed up blood and didn’t die a few seconds later? Of course, you haven’t because the blood in the lungs means emanate and immediate death.
That is why the natives called it “white death”. When this cold killer came creeping through their little Indian camp they would start dropping like flies, presumably while they ran screaming “it is the white death!”
The best protection against this stuff is a house and some space heaters. That should keep you warm while the white death passes through.
It is not as dangerous as it was in the past, but still, some foolhardy people go marching out thinking they’re stronger than 100 percent humidity and temperatures lower than 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t be that fool.