A century and a half of scientific inquiry has yet to solve this one. It’s clear that a thin layer of liquid water on top of solid ice causes the slipperiness. A fluid’s mobility makes it difficult to walk on, even if the layer is thin. But there’s no consensus as to why ice – unlike most other solids – has such a layer.
Flower-like frost structures, that are aptly named frost flowers, have been found to harbour various forms of bacteria, despite the freezing Arctic environment they exist in, and gives astrobiologists reason to believe that similar such life forms may have taken hold on other planets and moons within the solar system.
Bowman and Deming have discovered that bacteria are consistently more abundant in frost flowers than in sea ice. Since microscopic pockets in sea ice are known to support an active community of psychrophiles (cold-loving microorganisms), even in the coldest months of the year, these results are encouraging. Frost flowers, however, are much colder than sea ice. In their last field season at Barrow, Alaska, working between intense blizzards blowing off the Beaufort Sea, they collected frost flowers and underlying sea ice for a comparative analysis of the life they host. Techniques designed to identify weakly respiring organisms are being employed in one of the coldest natural environments studied so far.
A chunk of ice breaking off the Upsala glacier in Argentina. Calving is the actual term applied when something like this happens, and while that was a new one for me, I also discovered some people indulge in a little glacier surfing if they’re around when something like this occurs.
Residents of Cuatro Esquinas, in Ecuador, once relied on ice merchants, people who would scale the country’s highest mountain, Chimborazo, sometimes climbing to heights of 4800 metres, to bring blocks of ice back into town for use in cooling and refrigeration systems.
He is literally, by hand and all alone up on the mountain, carving out large pieces of ice at a time. So the biggest dangers are things falling on him. The pieces of ice that he breaks off are hundreds and hundreds of pounds. But the ice isn’t the only danger, because on top of that there are just loose rocks going up the mountain. Everything on the mountain is pretty much just stuff sitting on other stuff. It’s like Jenga – if you take out one of the lower pieces, who knows if something is gonna topple down?
Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia, is to be cooled by way of a giant block of ice during the next northern summer, which city administrators plan to create over the winter. It is hoped the ice mass will moderate temperatures as it melts over the course of the summer months.
This is interesting considering that Ulan Bator, due to its elevation and distance from oceans or other bodies of water, is considered the coldest capital city in the world, a place where residents probably spend more time shivering than sweating, and summer temperatures reach an average high of some 23°C (about 73°F).
Then again, while 23°C doesn’t seem like much, Sydney’s summer average is 26°C (79°F), yet temperatures can hover at, or above, 30°C for days, even weeks, over the height of summer. A giant ice block may therefore be just the cooling aid that the Mongolian capital needs.
The above image, assembled from photos taken by a number of satellites in Earth orbit of the recent snow storms that have gripped the northern hemisphere, seems to suggest that the ice of the Northern polar cap is expanding and enveloping much of the planet as it spreads south.
Frozen lakes are known to give off most noise during major fluctuations in temperature: the ice expands or contracts, and the resulting tension in the ice causes cracks to appear. Due to the changes in temperature, the hours of morning and evening are usually the best times to hear these sounds. In my experience, thin ice is especially interesting for acoustic phenomena; it is more elastic and sounds are propagated better across the surface.
Katie Paterson went to Iceland and recorded the sounds of three separate glaciers – Langjökull, Snæfellsjökull, Solheimajökull – and then pressed the dripping noises onto records made from each glacier’s melted (and then re-frozen) ice. She finished by playing the three ice records simultaneously for the two hours it took each to melt.