Category: "Pond and puddle patterns"

Slush Fingering and Other Pond Patterns

January 19th, 2012

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we just had our first snowfalls of the season. On the weekend, we had 1 – 2 inches. This was followed on Wednesday by what the Seattle Times newspaper was calling a “megastorm”. But in the end, most areas in the area got only a few inches. Here in Redmond, we had 4 – 5 inches. And though the temperature barely dipped below freezing, I had several opportunities to observe snow patterns on the neighboring pond.

Or maybe I should say slush patterns. (Slush is a roughly uniform mixture of water and snow or ice.) Take the viscous fingering pattern I mentioned in my pond-ice post of a few days ago. Here is a similar type of pattern, except this looks like a neuron dendrite inside an egg.

Unlike the Boulder ice in that previous post, the ice layer on this pond was way too thin for me to walk on. Perhaps that’s a key to understanding why the patterns here instead had darker regions near their center. I don’t know. Anyway, the pond had a few such regions in which the water created dendrite-like fingering.

On the first snowfall, the pond had more circles with dark centers, but perhaps because the amount of snow was less, there was no discernable fingering near the centers, just dark centers caused by more uniform flooding.

In general, the basic layering was liquid below, clear and solid ice above, slush (or frozen slush) on top of the ice, and snow on top of the slush. (There can also be slush under a layer of solid ice.) The first snowstorm, though it had less snow, was preceded by colder weather. So, the clear ice was a little thicker and the slush layer thinner. Between the snowstorms, the ice melted and for awhile we had just slush on top of the liquid water.

The circular and fingering patterns arise when water gets pressed out of a small hole in the ice. The water then floods the ice as sketched below.

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Snow on a Freshly Frozen Pond

January 15th, 2012

Back when I was doing post-doctoral work in Boulder, Colorado, Charlie Knight, the head of my lab, introduced me to strange ice phenomena. The most memorable one happened after the weather had been sub-zero for a few days and then we got some snow. When this happened, we stopped work and drove out to some shallow ponds to look at the patterns on the surface. Sometimes odd, concentric circles formed.

To see the size of the rings, check out the overview.

The guy in the background is Charlie. He is sawing through the ice to get a sample. Behind him are two visitors who came out with us that day. The ice was about 2" thick, if I remember right, and would make some cracking noises sometimes as we walked on it.

I don't know if he figured out the cause of the pattern. I never made any progress in understanding it. Anyway, what seems to happen is that water gets pushed out through a small hole in the ice, and the water apparently spreads out in a circular region. But why does the lightness of the ice change in nearly equally spaced, discrete steps? And why is it whitest in the center?

I figured that if water flooded over the ice in discrete steps (day-night temperature fluctuations, as we think happens with the pancake ice?), then the region in the center would be the darkest, not the whitest. For example look at this counterexample.

This shows the hole where water comes out, but the water floods outward in a ragged fashion, not like a concentric circle. This type of flow has been studied a lot in the laboratory and has the technical name "viscous fingering". Anyway, notice that the region near the center is darker, not whiter.

Any ideas about the concentric circles?


An Ice Vase Sprouts From a Bathtub

February 6th, 2011

Someone recently sent me a beautiful image of an ice structure in the shape of a vase. The vase in that case had somehow sprouted out of a frozen birdbath. The thing reminded me of an ice vase I once found on an old plugged-up bathtub in a farmer’s field in Japan. See the photo below.

On approaching the tub, I first thought the ice bump on top was some chunk that had fallen off the roof and refrozen. But on closer view, I found that the thing had sprouted out of the surface. How did I know? Well, as I leaned over it, my body pressed against the tub wall, and I noticed something move. Turned out it was water on top, filling up the vase to the brim! See the sequence below.

Clearly, I’m not pushing that flimsy twig through solid ice.

Of all the curious things I’ve seen here, never before nor since did I see something like this water-filled ice vase. However, the vase forms in much the same way as the somewhat-more-common “ice-cube spikes” that sprout from ice cube trays. But how do such spikes and vases form?

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Ice Forms on Slow-moving Water II: Pancakes and Frozen Foam

January 16th, 2011

An acquaintance of mine recently discovered these odd discs of ice.

The discs floated freely in an eddy behind some fallen logs on the Nooksack River’s south fork. See other photos and a short video at

What we think happened is this: Foam floating about on the water, which you can see in the video, started to freeze, probably at night. Bits of frozen foam got pushed around in the eddy, and in the ensuing collisions, became roughly circular. Perhaps each disc grew radially when smaller pieces of unfrozen foam struck the disc, adhered and spread out a bit along the perimeter, and then froze in place.

The raised rims are undoubtedly due to the collisions. One sees such rims on “pancake ice”, which is also said to be due to collisions, but what about the concentric raised regions inside the discs? None of the images of pancake ice on Google seem to show these inner lines.

Here’s an idea about those lines. The air temperature oscillated during the growth of these discs: colder at night due to the clear-sky conditions and resulting radiative cooling, but warmer in the day. The discs may have grown at night, collecting new foam, then during the day, when the discs softened in the sun, softening particularly around the edges, the collisions raised up the rims. The next night, further radial growth followed by a new rim the next day at a greater radius. The pictures and video show 4-5 such rims, indicating growth over 4-5 days, which is roughly consistent with the duration of our cold snap.

- JN

Ice Forms on Slow-moving Water I: Caterpillars and Cellular Dendrites

January 15th, 2011

During my last winter in Japan (2009-2010), I would walk around a neighborhood park on frosty mornings, looking for interesting ice forms. It was in this park that I found one rock (only one!) that on some mornings would sprout hair-like ice, arising from liquid water within (see the last images in my “Ice on the Rocks” post, Jan 27). This park also has a small, slow-flowing brook that, despite the relatively warm conditions, often freezes over. Usually, upon freezing, it shows an ice pattern consisting of many long (~ one foot) straight lines – a typical pattern you usually see on glaciated puddles and ponds. But on the morning of February 4, at one spot right before the water tumbled over a waterfall, the ice surface looked slightly different. It had lines, but the lines were short, thick, and bumpy (see photo below), looking a bit like black-blue caterpillars scattered about.

From the small bridge spanning the brook, I reached down, pulled some ice out, and was shocked at what I saw. This was not “solid” ice, but rather a bunch of very thin ice plates loosely resting on each other – somewhat like a deck of cards spread out in a fan, though in this case, each ice plate had its own size and shape. Also, unlike other thin ice plates I’d seen before, these ones resembled neither the fast-growing ice dendrites (the snow-crystal-like, branched forms) nor the slow-growing ice discs. The photo below also shows that the plates were big – the section shown being several inches across.

Over larger streams and faster-moving water, ice can develop into something called frazil ice. I’ve no experience with frazil ice, never having lived in a cold-enough region, but I this caterpillar ice may be different. For one, the water was extremely slow-flowing. I could not discern the flow, even in ice-free regions, whereas the descriptions I’ve read about frazil ice involve easily discernable flow rates, flow rates that introduce turbulence, crystal collisions, and mixing below the surface. Also, the ice crystals I saw were much larger than the millimeter-sized pieces I see reported for frazil ice. So, the caterpillar form might be a transitional form, between frazil and that over stagnant water.

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