Finally got it!

February 8th, 2012

For a few years now, myself and another ice-researcher have been trying to get a research grant from the National Science Foundation to study snow. Well, we just recently heard that the funding came through and I’ll be starting on the project in March. Yeah!

You might wonder what it is that we don’t already know about snow. Well, the better question is, what do we really know? The answer is “not much”. There’s been a lot of experiments in the lab, spanning nearly 100 years now, with many interesting results, but nothing really clear has emerged. Here’s one of the basic problems: In a typical cloud consisting of supercooled droplets and snow crystals, we can calculate the crystal’s rate of growth fairly accurately if we know the crystal shape. But it is extremely difficult to predict the crystal’s shape, and the rate of growth can change a lot with the shape. That’s the thing about snow crystals - they come in a bewildering variety of shapes, and we still have no clue as to why. And if the crystal isn’t surrounded by supercooled droplets, the situation is even worse.

We argued in our proposal that the main reason we don’t have a clear picture about the development of snow crystal shape (and even growth rate) is because of problems with the experimental methods. Instrumental influences easily creep into the experiment and alter the crystal shape. We suggested a new method based on one I helped developed in 1994-1996. In that method, we grew single ice crystals from the tip of an ultrafine glass capillary (about 10x thinner than the typical hair on a person’s head). Some of the images below show what I mean about shape variety.


The crystals are all very small and compact because we were interested in growth with very low humidity. In the series (a1) - (a7), you see the crystal growing as I rotated the capillary to see all of the crystal faces. Sometimes I let a crystal grow for a week or more.


You can see that sometimes a crystal is 5-sided. But the angles between the prismatic faces are always multiples of 60 degrees. I don't think I'll ever see a 5-sided snow crystal that looks exactly like a pentagon.


The large crystal at the bottom left & middle was starting to melt. The melting formed cusps on the edges of the face. The one at the top right is called a bullet rosette. These crystals are very common in cirrus clouds and other very low-temperature clouds. The sequence at the upper left shows something we can do with a capillary: we can suck the crystal out from the inside. In that case, I put a vacuum on the other end of the capillary and a void started to form. Then, inexplicably, a crystal started growing inside the void! You never know what will happen in these experiments.

By this time next year, I hope to be able to show new crystals we grew. And sometime soon after that, have some reliable results.

-- Jon

Caution!

February 1st, 2012

Hoar. It's just a white coating on things, so why does it make everything look more interesting?

I saw this hoar coating on a plastic trash-can lid:


The hoar frost on the lid had various whirls, just like I've seen on the plastic surfaces of car door handles and side-view mirrors. This hoar was a little different though in that the crystals were definitely sticking up and not laying flat on the surface. Nevertheless, the fact that they show a pattern at all, and are not just randomly oriented, means that there must have been a liquid film of water that first froze to the surface. The film froze, producing a pattern of crystal orientations on the surface, and these orientations were not revealed until the hoar frost grew. Hurray for hoar!

Here's another warning:


The hoar crystals are longer on the raised lettering, particularly near edges. This is not because such places are further from the ground, but because they have more radiative cooling (due to their more expansive view of the sky) and can stick out into regions with a greater density of water vapor molecules.

If you click on the images, you can see the crystals a little better. But I forgot my tripod on this particular morning (I took the shots after I got to the office), and so the images aren't as crisp as my other close-up shots.

- Jon

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?

--Jon

Seeing Things in the Frost

January 15th, 2012

In looking at the Cloud Appreciation Society's website recently, I started wondering; if they can have so much fun finding clouds that resemble various objects, why can't we do that for frost patterns?

Awhile back, I posted frost that looked like an eye ("Eyes and Dry Moats" Jan. 22, 2010). Here are a few other forms:

A moose.


A tree.


A lawn rake (or hand) and a spider web.


Two bats and some ferns?


I noticed a few interesting things about the ferns in the above image. Look at the close-up below:


If you were to follow a line of crystals out one of the curves, and then take a ruler to the edges of the crystals, you will find that crystals at one end are slightly turned from crystals at the other. It's a slight effect, more easily seen in longer, curvy patterns, but it shows that when a finger of ice grew in the underlying water film, the crystal lattice actually twisted with strain as the finger curved. This was found out by experiments in the 1960s, so I was aware of this effect. But the other curious thing is that the line of crystals has two basic shapes: long but stubby ones and nearly hexagon-shaped crystals. They all have the same crystal orientation, but they look different. I hadn't noticed that effect before.


-- Jon

Fun with windshield ice

January 11th, 2012

In my last post, I pointed out that you can determine the crystal orientation in a film of ice by looking at hoar-frost that sprouts from its surface. Here's another way, but it only works if the ice is on glass. For example, here's ice on my windshield, as seen through crossed polaroids:

To get colors, the ice must be sufficiently thick. You can play around by spraying a mist of water onto your windshield (or some other sufficiently cold pane of glass), letting it freeze, looking through the polaroid sheets, and then spraying some more if you don't see colors you like. One polaroid sheet must be in front of the ice, the other behind the ice. And you need to cross the sheets. You can tell when the sheets are crossed because a bare pane of glass will be black between crossed polaroids.

Two things determine the color: the thickness of the ice and the crystal orientation. So, the boundary between different colors marks the boundary between different crystals. Black regions usually mark regions where the crystal is "basal" orientation; that is, you are viewing the ice crystal lattice from the same angle that you are viewing the nice dendrite crystals that Mark posts here. And where the color changes gradually, you are seeing where the ice thickness is changing gradually.

Of course, don't try this while driving!

-- Jon

Choppy waves

January 11th, 2012

I thought this hoar frost pattern looked like rough seas. I see choppy, cusp-like waves down there.

Not having any pictures of rough seas, I hopped in our bathtub and kicked my legs around to make waves. Perhaps you can see a little resemblance.

However, the processes that caused the cusp-like, choppy wave pattern in the frost are completely different from those in the bathtub. Look more closely at the hoar-frost pattern:

It just goes to show you that hoar frost is never as simple as you’d think. Though from a distance it might look like white whiskers, up close it shows unexpected patterns. These patterns reveal something about how the crystals strained, twisted, and competed with each other.

Though it is true that the hoar crystals we see are built of deposited vapor molecules (invisible water molecules once floating in the air that happened to strike and freeze onto a cold surface), the story of hoar has an earlier beginning. In the beginning, the surface already had a thin film of liquid water. See the top panel in the sketch below.

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The Six-fold Nature of Snow

March 15th, 2011

Some people have asked me why snow crystals have six corners. The answers I’ve seen in books and the Internet are incomplete at best. Here’s a more complete answer. (A pdf copy of this article is here.)

How the crystal got its “six”

It’s a cold winter’s day in Prague, late in the year 1611. A man walking home is worried because he has no new-year’s gift for his friend, benefactor, and fellow philosopher. Upon crossing over the Charles Bridge, some snow crystals quietly land on his coat. The crystals at first distract his thoughts, and then bring great delight. Of course! The six-cornered crystals on his coat have brought a philosophical puzzle to present to his friend: Why, he asks, do they always fall with six corners, not five or seven? What is the origin of the number six? Who shaped the little head before it fell, giving it six frozen horns?

Indeed, what is the origin of the six? Why do snow crystals often look nearly the same when rotated by 1/6th of a turn?

Johannes Kepler, like others in his time, did not have the atomic theory of matter to use as an explanation. But he was nevertheless on the right track when he later wondered whether ice bore a relation to the honeycomb of a beehive(1). Indeed, the honeycomb structure is very similar to what we see in the internal molecular lattice of a snow crystal. If you could zoom in about a million times into any region of a snow crystal, such as the branch tip in figure 1A below, you would see a lattice of hexagonal rings, as sketched in B. Each ring of six oxygen atoms (black) has the six-fold symmetry; that is, the ring looks the same when rotated by 1/6 of a turn. This six-fold symmetric pattern inside ice provides a simple, though rather superficial, answer to the origin of the “6”.

But things are not so simple. If you examine the rings further, you will notice that their sides are all rotated by 30º in relation to the sides of the crystal. Why the 30º twist? Moreover, if you look at the orientations of the molecules (i.e., the red hydrogens), you will see that the rings are actually not six-fold symmetric. And, upon turning the ring on its side, as in C), notice that it’s not even flat. So, at the very least, the simple answer is incomplete.

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What We Sometimes Miss

March 8th, 2011


For the first few years in which I would excitedly go out on frosty mornings to photograph ice formations, I never paid any attention to frost on car bodies. Sometimes I would notice something on our car window, but that was basically it – I was essentially blind to ice in places where I didn’t expect to see anything interesting. Then one day, while returning from an area that often had fascinating puddles and ground ice, I walked next to a black car with the most stunning display of frost that I had ever seen. The car was completely covered roof, hood, and trunk with a thick, large, curvy white pattern of ice made distinct by the background of black underneath.


I spent the next hour or so taking pictures, returning home once to get another camera when my roll of film ran out. Though I understood roughly the processes involved, the initial freezing of a thin layer of water, making curvy ice patterns, followed by vapor depositing onto the frozen parts as hoar, making the ice white, there were other puzzling things that kept me entertained. However, the most puzzling thing of all was the fact that people would walk right by without even slowing down. Here was a strange and rare sight: strange because of the hastily dressed man (myself) leaning over a parked car with a tripod snapping pictures, and a rare yet striking display of curving frost in full view, and yet they paid me nor my prize no mind. It was as if I was the only person who could see the pattern.

The reverse thing happened to me just a few days ago. We had wet weather one day followed by a cold, clear night – perfect conditions for good hoary film frost. And indeed, many cars in our parking lot had beautiful curvy film-frost. I walked around, looking specifically for black cars, which show the most contrast to the white hoar, and photographed some on one car, but somehow overlooked the most amazing one of all: a speckled-seaweed-like pattern that I've seen only once before (see the Dec. 1 posting).


Even though the above was on a black car in a region I checked, I still missed it. But luckily, my neighbor caught it and emailed a few photos. In the image, some of the trails seem to cross over each other, but closer inspection instead suggests a coincidental merging of two trails on one side with a forking off on the other side.


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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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