Breaking the Ice: Cool facts, Amazing experiments, and the Mind-blowing Science of Frozen water

Woman standing in ice water on the shore of a lake with mountains in the background

What is ice water? What is ice?

Chances are you’ve drunk thousands of glasses of ice water in your life. But did you ever stop to think about the properties of ice water? Probably not, nobody ever pays attention to common items that surround them. But what if I were to tell you that ice isn’t so common?

In fact, ice water is strange, really strange; it’s one of the strangest items in the whole universe (and just think, you’ve been chugging glasses of it for years). The only reason you haven’t noticed how strange it is, is because it’s always been around you.

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But take this for instance: what happens to most things when they get cold? Right! They contract. Temperature drops cause the kinetic energy of the atoms of a substance to be reduced. The atoms move less, and the substance gets smaller, and denser.

But not with water.

When water gets cold, water expands and becomes less dense!

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Good thing too, because what would happen to all the fish if ice contracted? If ice didn’t expand to become less dense than water, it wouldn’t float, and lakes would freeze from the bottom up. That wouldn’t be good for the fish that survive under ice cover.

In fact, dense ice would have a huge negative effect on all life on Earth. Let’s just say we should all be glad that’s a problem the human race will never have to deal with.

But the expansion of ice at cold temperatures is just one of the many weird properties of ice water. Read on to find out a ton more strange and unusual properties about a common glass of ice water.

Why Is Ice Less Dense than Water

Sorry to get all scientific on you, but understanding the basic structure of ice is critical to understanding the dazzling knowledge fireworks that will be coming later in this article (so bear with me).

The chemical properties of common, everyday objects are sometimes quite baffling. Liquid water has enough energy that the Hydrogen bonds that hold the compound together are constantly breaking and reforming.

When the water absorbs more energy (like when you boil it), the compound starts breaking apart entirely, and that’s when you get steam. However, when you take energy away, that’s when something weird happens:

Think of the Hydrogen bonds as angry teachers that can’t control an unruly class. In the form of liquid water, the Hydrogen keeps changing focus like a teacher who yells at one student then quickly turns to scream at another.

It’s always exerting its force in a different direction.

But when the energy of the compound is taken away, the Hydrogen is able to focus in only one direction and form a stronger bond. It’s like a teacher who focuses on only one student to discipline.

That’s the difference between the truly H2O molecules of water in the bottom of that video, and the ordered, frozen in place H20 molecules of ice.

Because of the structure of the water molecule, solid H-bonds create a hard, crystalline lattice structure that we know as ice.

These rigid H-bonds are lower energy, and the bonds are established that is greater than the fluid bonds you get in water’s liquid state. Therefore, ice is hard, but less dense than water.

Ice block on some water with a person's hands on it. Ice is hard, but not as dense, as water.

Can You Have Hot Ice?

In ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ Willy Wonka invents hot ice cream for cold days. The idea sounds absurd, but what if I told you that it was possible to make warm ice?

Sound crazy?

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The thing is, water is nothing more than a chemical compound that reacts differently under different circumstances. We think of water, ice, and steam like we do because we’ve always interacted with them under a very small range of temperatures and pressures.

Scientists like to do insane things like subject water to temperatures and pressures you find on…Oh, let’s say Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Although it’s difficult to go to Titan, it is possible to recreate the conditions of Titan in a lab.

And when you subject water to those conditions, weird things happen.

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It turns out that when you subject water at room temperature to the pressure of around 30,000 atmospheres, you end up with pressurized ice!

Unlike cold ice (which is known as Ice Ih, don’t ask me why they have to ruin a good labeling system with the ‘h’), Ice VII is denser than water!

In fact, scientists theorize that the ocean floor of Titan (one of Saturn’s moons) is comprised of Ice VII! That sounds cool, but you can’t swim in it.

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Because 30,000 atmospheres is equivalent to a weight of 438,000 pounds pressing down on you from all angles.

Shesh, and you thought a cumberbund was tight!

How Many Forms of Ice Are there?

This is a tough question to answer because scientists get a little goofy sometimes.

There may be as many as 17 forms of ice, although not all of those have been recreated in a lab, and some of them have been created only for a second or so.

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Also among the magic 17 number are forms of ice that are only hypothetical and nobody’s ever seen them anywhere.

Honestly though, my mind would be equally blown knowing that there are 2 or 3 different forms of ice. To think there could be as many as 17 is nuts.

Kurt Vonnegut had a fun time playing around with the properties of ice in his book ‘Cat’s Cradle’ which deals with a hypothetical version of Ice IX. In Vonnegut’s version, Ice IX (or Ice-nine as it’s called in the book) converts all water to a liquid that freezes solid at room temperature.

That would be bad.

Then again, scientists like to play around making nuclear weapons; one of them might be insane enough to permanently manipulate the chemical structure of ice and doom us all.

Why is it they can’t make that, but nobody has figured out how to put metal in the microwave?

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If you want to learn more about the various forms of ice, check out the video below. If you are more interested in reading about some cool and weird things you can do with ice on this planet, then scroll down.

Cool and Weird Things You Can Do With Ice On This Planet

It turns out, ice is pretty strange even if you don’t go to the bottom of the theoretical ocean on the floor of Saturn’s moon Titan. You’re wrestling with one of the fundamental, life-giving compounds of the universe, after all, it can take a lot of abuse.

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Scientists have done all sorts of experiments with ice under various conditions. Here’s a brief list of topics we’ll give you an overview on:

  • Using ice to reduce swelling
  • Turn water into ice without a freezer
  • The science of blue ice
  • The world’s most unusual ice
  • Ice vs. Salt
  • Black ice
  • Superionic water ice
  • Turning boiling water into snow
  • Dumping molten lava onto ice

Ice as a Mystical Healer

We’ve all been there; you go from jamming the basketball from the 3-point line to rolling on the ground in agony with a twisted ankle. What does a doctor tell you to do? Take Ibuprofen and ice it.

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But why does that work?

Cold therapy works by restricting blood flow to a region. This brings the inflammation down and helps muscles recover. Just think about that the next time you’re taking an ice bath after winning the Super Bowl (seems like I’m in that ice bath twice a year).

Ice Without a Freezer, You’re Mad!

You just aren’t believing me about this relationship of pressure and temperature, are you? I don’t blame you; it’s really hard to comprehend vastly different realities from our daily experiences without seeing the consequences for yourself.

Imagine if somebody tried to explain to you what it was like to go swimming if you’ve never been in the water. They could talk to you in hours and not convey the reality of the experience as well as what you’ll learn in the first five seconds sinking and desperately fighting for air (Thanks dad…not).

For a fun experiment to turn water into ice without a freezer you’ll need:

  • A cup
  • Water
  • Bell jar
  • Vacuum pump
  • Acetone

Put equal parts water and acetone into the cup, cover the cup with the bell jar, and then use the vacuum pump to remove the air from the bell jar. The warm water molecules will escape into the vacuum, and the water will turn to ice.

The Science of Blue Ice

Maybe someday you’ll survive a plane crash in Antarctica. Before you are traumatized by having to resort to cannibalism for survival, make sure to take a relaxing stroll and notice all the beautiful blue ice in the glaciers.

Blue ice is ice that’s over a million years old, and over time the bubbles that naturally form in ice are squeezed out due to the weight and pressure of younger layers of ice. It’s fantastically beautiful, and it’s the type of thing rich people insist on using to cool off their top-shelf whiskey.

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Weird Ice

We’ve talked about weird types of ice that can form on distant moons and planets under extreme temperatures and pressures, but weird ice can also form on Earth under various conditions. Two of these forms of weird ice are:

  • Frazil Ice
  • Nilas

Frazil ice is the kind of ice that forms in super-cooled turbulent water. Frazil ice is like frozen mist that flows along in water in a super-cooled slurry. It’s like when Mother Nature decides to turn rivers and waterfalls into naturally occurring giant slurpy machines, yum!

Frazil ice can form into thin sheets of ice called nilas. As these nilas form, the wind can push them over each other in a process called rafting. This is the kind of stuff you’d see all the time if you lived in Antarctica instead of Hawaii (you’re missing out).

Ice vs. Salt: A Battle of Titans

In cold areas, road crews often dump salt on the roads during the winter months. No, this isn’t part of an evil plot devised by car manufacturers to rust your vehicle’s undercarriage (although it does do that). Instead, they do it to keep the roads safe.

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It’s kind of weird when you think about how much chemical warfare is going on to keep the world running. It turns out salt and ice don’t get along together very well. Instead of hitting you with too much science, I’ll just say that salt lowers the melting point of water.

Actually, anything that dissolves in water will melt ice. The dissolving agent bonds with the water and leaves less liquid to be turned into ice. The result is a pockmarked surface that gives you enough traction to walk on without slipping and cracking your head open.

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Black Ice Is Dangerous Stuff

Anyone who has ever driven in a winter climate has probably had the misfortune of encountering black ice. Sometimes you’ll be driving along thinking everything is right in the world, only to hit your breaks and discover that nothing happens.

As you go spinning around in circles ultimately to crash into oncoming traffic or into the trunk of a massive oak tree, you think, “Oh, that road wasn’t clear, it was covered in black ice.”

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Black ice is a transparent sheet of ice that makes an icy road seem clear. When driving in cold regions of the world, it’s best to assume that every road is covered in black ice. You’ll find yourself hanging out at the auto body shop less often.

Superionic Water Ice

One of the weirdest little mysteries of the universe is the wave/particle duality of light. Scientists are always pulling their hair out because they can’t definitively say whether light is a wave or a particle (it drives them nuts).

Well, it turns out that with the discovery of superionic water, you can add water to that short list of dual property phenomena that drive scientist mad.

Superionic water is water that’s simultaneously a solid and a liquid. It’s long been hypothesized to exist on planets like Uranus and Neptune (here we go with the planets again), but recently they successfully created it in a lab.

Superionic water is one of those forms of ice that can only exist at about a million atmospheres of pressure, and even then only for a few seconds. You never know what something like that is good for, but then again, even Bill Gates couldn’t conceive of why anyone would ever need a Gigabyte of memory.

Making Snow From Boiling Water

You didn’t think I was going to leave this one out did you? It seems like every day some part of the country has a cold snap of -30 degree days; the internet is flooded with a whole new set of “boiling water turns to snow” videos.

It may be an old trick, but it’s a pretty cool one, although personally, I think the videos where people try to do this with room temperature water and fail miserably are a bit funnier.

The whole idea is counter-intuitive. Why does boiling water turn to snow faster than water at room temperature? You’d think that the boiling water would have to pass through the room temperature phase before crystalizing, right?


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Essentially what happens when you throw a cup of boiling water into freezing air is that the water passes through all three phases instantaneously. Boiling water is very close to steam, and when you toss it out of a container, it separates into small particles and then instantly cools into snow.

It makes for a cool video.

Ice vs. Lava: The Main Event!

Did you ever think that scientists are the type of people who had really controlling parents as kids that didn’t ever let them do anything fun? That’s probably why they grew up to be people who played around in hazmat suits dumping molten lava on all manner of things.

(designer_start) [Picture of shooting lava ] (designer_end)

I have to admit though, that does sound pretty fun.

Before you do something stupid like dump a bunch of lava on ice, you should really sit down and try to think of what might happen. You don’t want to end up on a fail video, and even worse, you don’t want to end up in a hospital getting skin grafts on 90% of your body because of lava burns.

Will it explode? Will it send off a scalding jet of steam? What’s going to happen when you pour super-heated molten rock onto a sheet of ice? Well, just click on the video below, and you’ll find out:

Whoa, I bet you didn’t expect that answer? The ice evaporates into steam and bubbles up through the lava creating an effect of boiling lava.

The really remarkable thing about this video is that you have men with very high levels of education who should have been able to predict what would happen, and the actual result of the scientific experiment took them totally by surprise.

What is Ice Water?

Image by Uwe Kils: Iceberg. licensed under CC by ASA 3.0 unported via Wikimedia Commons

It turns out that ice water is one of the most bizarre and amazing compounds in the universe. It’s so bizarre, that even men and women who have spent tens of thousands of dollars on fancy educations are still unable to predict what it’s going to do under extreme circumstances.

Ice water has properties that are completely contradictory to anything else in the universe, and good thing too, because without those contradictory properties the universe wouldn’t be capable of supporting life.

So, the next time you’re at Denny’s enjoying a grand slam breakfast, too cheap to order a glass of soda, you’ll have a few things to reflect on.

As you tip back that glass of complimentary ice water just remember that in that simple vessel, you hold a compound that can unleash the secrets of the universe. Whoa!

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