Melting ice cubes experiment — observing the finer details

If you don’t know my favourite experiment for practically all purposes yet (Introduction to experimenting? Check! Thermohaline circulation? Check! Lab safety? Check! Scientific process? Check! And the list goes on and on…), check it out here. (Seriously, of you don’t recognize the experiment from the picture below, you need to read up on it, it’s awesome! :-))

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Susann and I got funding from PerLe (our university’s project to support teaching innovation) to add a couple of cool new features to Susann’s “intro to meteorology” lecture, and doing a hands-on experiment with 50 students in a lecture theatre in their second lecture was only one of the first of many more to come.

We used the experiment to introduce the students to oceanic circulation, and this experiment is, in my experience, very engaging and sparks curiosity, as well as being very nicely suited as a reminder that things are not as easy as they seem to be when you see those nice plots of the great conveyor belt and all the other simplified plots that you typically see in intro-level lectures. Especially understanding that there are many different processes at play simultaneously, and that they have different orders of magnitude and might act in different directions helps counteract the oversimplified views of the climate system that might otherwise be formed.

I usually use dye to make it easier to observe what’s going on in the experiment (either by freezing it directly into the ice cubes as shown in the picture on top of this blog post, or by dripping it onto the melting ice cubes when students have started to observe that — counter to their intuition — the ice cube in the fresh water cup is melting faster than the one in the salt water cup).  We had dye at hand, but I decided on the spur of the moment to not use it, because the students were already focussing on other, more subtle, aspects that the dye would only distract from:

The shape of the ice cubes

In many of the student groups, the most prominent observation was that the shape of the melting ice cubes was very different in the fresh water and salt water case. In the fresh water case, the ice cube melted from the sides inwards: as a cylindrical shape with a radius that was decreasing over time, but in any instance more or less constant for all depths. In the salt water case, however, the ice cube melted upwards: The top did not melt very much at all, but the deeper down you looked the more was melting away. Why?

Condensation on the sides of the cup

Another observation that I prompted was in what regions the cups showed condensation. In the fresh water case, there was a little condensation going on everywhere below the water line, and sometimes there were vertical streaks down from where the ice cube was touching the wall. In the salt water case, there was only a small band of intense condensation close to the water level.

This, not surprisingly, looks very similar to what a thermal imaging camera sees when observing the experiment (as described in this post).

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Taken together, those two observations are quite powerful in explaining what is going on, and it seemed to be a fun challenge for the students to figure out why there was condensation on the outside of the cups in the first place (does condensation occur in warmer or colder places?), what it meant that different places ended up being warmer or colder, and how all of that is connected to global ocean circulation. Definitely an experiment I would recommend you do! :-)

Evaporating sea water

How much salt is there in sea water? What concentration do you need before crystals start forming? What will those crystals look like? I am sure those are the kind of questions that keep you awake at night!

Of course this can easily assessed experimentally. On a visit to the University of Bergen’s Centre for Science Education just now, I was shown the result of such an experiment: A litre of water was mixed with 35 grams of salt to simulate sea water with its typical salinity. Below, you see what the beaker looked like after sitting out for three months.

You can see that salt crystals are forming at the walls of the beaker, but that their structure depends on depth below the initial water level (see the 1000 ml mark on the beaker).

When there is still a lot of water in the beaker, crystals look like ornate flowers. Then, the less water is left in the beaker, the more square the crystals become. And at the bottom of the beaker, you see the typical salt crystals you would expect.

 

Actually, even though they look like the kind of salt crystals I would expect, apparently someone who knows about crystallography commented that there must be other stuff in there than just cooking salt since the crystals don’t look the way they should. I need to read up on this! :-)

Anyway, this is an experiment that I want to do myself, so maybe in three months time there will be more pictures of this!

Thanks for a very nice lunch, Olaug, Frede, Andreas, Morven and Elin! Looking forward to working with you a lot more in the future! :-)

P.S.: with this blog post I am testing to blog pretty much “real time” from my mobile phone, so if you notice anything odd, please let me know!

Taking the hydrostatic paradox to the next (water) level

How well do people understand hydrostatics? I am preparing a workshop for tomorrow night and I am getting very bored by the questions that I have been using to introduce clickers for quite a lot of workshops now. So I decided to use the hydrostatic paradox this time around.

The first question is the standard one: If you have a U-tube and water level is given on one side, then what is the water level like on the other side? We all know the typical student answer (that typically 25% of the students are convinced of!): On the wider side the water level has to be lower since a larger volume of water is heavier than the smaller volume on the other side.

Clearly, this is not the case:

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However, what happens if you use that fat separator jug the way it was intended to be used and fill it with two layers of different density (which is really what it is intended for: to separate fat from gravy! Your classical 2-layer system)?

Turns out that now the two water levels in the main body of the jug and in the spout are not the same any more: Since we filled the dense water in through the spout, the spout is filled with dense water, as is the bottom part of the jug. Only the upper part of the jug now contains fresh water.

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The difference in height is only maybe a millimetre, but it is there, and it is clearly visible:

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Water level 1 (red line) is the “main” water level, water level 2 (green line) is the water level in the spout and clearly different from 1, and water level 3 is the density interface.

We’ll see how well they’ll do tomorrow when I only give them levels 1 and 3, and ask them to put level 2 in. Obviously we are taking the hydrostatic paradox to the next (water) level here! :-)

Using the “melting ice cube” experiment to let future instructors experience inquiry-based learning.

Ice cubes melting in fresh water and salt water. By Mirjam S. Glessmer

Using the “melting ice cube” experiment to let future instructors experience inquiry-based learning.

I recently (well, last year, but you know…) got the chance to fill in for a colleague and teach part of a workshop that prepares teaching staff for using inquiry-based learning in their own teaching. My part was to bring in an experiment and have the future instructors experience inquiry-based learning first hand.

So obviously I brought the ice cubes melting in fresh water and salt water experiment! (Check out that post to read my write-up of many different ways this experiment can be used, and what people can learn doing it). On that occasion the most interesting thing for me was that when we talked about why one could use this — or a similar — experiment in teaching, people mainly focussed on the group aspect of doing this experiment: How people had to work together in a team, agree to use the same language and notation (writing “density of water at temperature zero degree Celsius” in some short syntax is not easy when you are not an oceanographer!).

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And this experiment never fails to deliver:

  • you can be 100% sure that at least in one group, someone will say “oh wait, which was the salt water again?” which hands you on a plate the opportunity to say “see — this is a great experiment to use when talking about why we need to write good documentation already while we are doing the experiment!”
  • you can also be 100% sure that in that group, someone will taste the water to make sure they know which cup contains the salt water. Which lets you say your “see — perfect experiment to talk about lab safety stuff! Never ever put things in your mouth in a lab!”
  • you can also be sure, that people come up with new experiments they want to try. At EMSEA14, people asked what would happen if the ice cubes were at the bottom of the beaker. Today, people asked what the dye would do if there was no ice in the cups, just salt water and fresh water. Perfect opportunity to say “try! Then you’ll know! And btw — isn’t this experiment perfect to inspire the spirit of research (or however you would say that in English – “Forschergeist” is what I mean!). This is what you see in the pictures in this blog post.

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So yeah. Still one of my favorite experiments, and I LOVE watching people discover the fascination of a little water, ice, salt and food dye :-)

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Photo taken by Ulrike Bulmann
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Photo taken by Ulrike Bulmann

Btw, when I gave a workshop on active learning last week and mentioned this experiment, people got really really hooked, too, so I’ll leave you with a drawing that I liked:

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When water doesn’t seek its level

Water seeks its level. U-tube experiment. By Mirjam S. Glessmer

Last week we talked about misconceptions related to hydrostatic pressure, and how water always seeks its level. Today I’m gonna show you circumstances in which this is actually not the case!

We take the fat separator jug we used last week. Today, it is filled with fresh water, to which we add very salty water through the jug’s spout. What is going to happen? Watch the movie and find out!

Turns out that now the two water levels in the main body of the jug and in the spout are not the same any more: Since we filled the dense water in through the spout, the spout is filled with dense water, as is the bottom part of the jug. Only the upper part of the jug now contains fresh water.

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The difference in height is only maybe a millimetre, but it is there, and it is clearly visible.

Do you see the opportunities for discussions this experiment provides? If we knew the exact volumes of fresh water and salt water, and the exact salinity, we could measure the difference in height of the water levels and try to figure out how much mixing must have taken place when the fresh water was added to the jug. Or we could use the difference in height to try and calculate the density difference between fresh water and salt water and then from that calculate salinity. So many possibilities! :-)

My favorite demonstration of the coolest mixing process: Salt fingering!

I am updating many of my old posts on experiments and combining multiple posts on the same topic to come up with a state-of-the-art post, so you can always find the best materials on here. And today I would like to present you my favorite experiment: Salt fingering!

Check out the new page I made for salt fingering!

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Self-portrait with salt fingers

As you guys might have noticed, I’ve been playing around with my site a quite bit. My blog has moved to mirjamglessmer.com/blog in order to make room for static pages of my favorite experiments or teaching tips right at the landing site mirjamglessmer.com. What do you think? Good idea? Did you notice anything that isn’t quite working yet or do you have advice or wishes? Let me know!

Guest post: Estimating salinity as a homework assignment

Today I am super excited to share a guest post that my awesome friend Joke Lübbecke wrote for us. Joke is a professor in physical oceanography in Kiel, and we like to chat about teaching occasionally. She has great ideas for exciting tasks for students to do and I bet they learn a lot from her. Here is what she writes (and the photos in this post are the original photos that her students kindly agreed to let us use on this blog. Thanks very much!):

Estimating salinity as a homework assignment

When I gave the second-year oceanography students in my class bottles of salt water and – without any further instructions – asked them to find out what the salinity was, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Would they just take a sip and guess 35? Would they all use the same approach? So when they handed in their solutions in the following week I was very happy to see how creative they had been and how many different things they had tried to get to an answer. For example, they had

  • Evaporated the water and weighted the dry salt
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Evaporating water from salt water and weighing the remaining salt to measure salinity
  • Used differences in buoyancy between salt and fresh water
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Measuring salinity by comparing buoyancy with known samples
  • Measured the electric resistance of the sample, then tried to mix a solution with the same resistance by adding more and more (defined quantities of) salt to a fresh water sample
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Measuring salinity by measuring the resistance of the sample and reproducing a sample with known salinity and the same resistance

or simply

  • Tasted the sample and compared to water samples with known salinities :-)

The numbers they came up with were as diverse as their approaches so this was also a nice demonstration of the difficulties to accurately measure salinity.

(And of course the salinity of the water sample they got was about 35, but who cares? – the journey is the reward!)

Ice cubes melting at the bottom of the beakers

Because surely there is one more post in this topic? ;-)

For those of you who haven’t heard about the “melting ice cube” obsession of mine, please check out the links to other posts at the end of this post. For everybody else’s sake, let’s dive right in!

When Kristin and I ran the workshop at EMSEA14, a couple of people asked very interesting questions. One that I totally had to follow up on was this: What would happen if the ice cubes were forced to the bottom of the beakers? Of course we knew what theory said about this, but who cares? I still had to try.

If you have ever tried holding down ice cubes with straws…

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…and we have a movie of this! :-)

…you might know that that is quite difficult. So this is the experimental setup I ended up with:

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Ice cubes melting at the bottom of a fresh water and a salt water beaker

Zooming out a little bit, this is my fancy equipment:

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The camera gets a white skirt over the tripod because the reflection of the tripod is seriously annoying

Zooming out a little more, this is the whole setup:

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Chair on table in my winter garden, holding the white-ish oilcloth that serves as background. I should invest in a proper rod for the upper edge of the oil cloth, the current one has suffered a bit…

I know that some people want to try the experiment for themselves, so I’ll hide the rest of the experiment behind the cut, at least until Kristin tells me that she’s done it :-)

Continue reading Ice cubes melting at the bottom of the beakers

Creating a continuous stratification in a tank, using the double bucket filling method

Because I am getting sick of stratifications not working out the way I planned them.

Creating stratifications, especially continuous stratifications, is a pain. Since I wanted a nice stratification for an experiment recently, I finally decided to do a literature search on how the professionals create their stratifications. And the one method that was mentioned over and over again was the double bucket method, which I will present to you today.

Two reservoirs are placed at a higher level than the tank to be filled, and connected with a U-tube which is initially closed with a clamp. Both reservoirs are filled with fresh water. To one of the buckets, salt is added to achieve the highest desired salinity in the stratification we are aiming for. From this bucket, a pump pumps water down into the tank to be filled (or, for the low-tech version: use air pressure and a bubble-free hose to drive water down into the tank as shown in the figure above!); the lower end of the hose rests on a sponge that will float on the water in the tank. When the pump is switched on (or alternatively, the bubble-free hose from the reservoir to the tank opened), the clamp is removed from the U-tube. So for every unit of salt water leaving the salty reservoir through the hose, half a unit of fresh water flows in to keep the water levels in both reservoirs the same height. Thus the salt water is, little by little, mixed with fresh water, so the water flowing out into the tank gets gradually fresher. If all goes well, this results in a continuous salinity stratification.

Things that might go wrong include, but are not limited to,

  • freshwater not mixing well in the saline reservoir, hence the salinity in that reservoir not changing continuously. To avoid that, stir.
  • bubbles in the U-tube (especially if the U-tube is run over the top edges of the reservoirs which is a lot more feasible than drilling holes into the reservoirs) messing up the flow. It is important to make sure there is no air in the tube connecting the two reservoirs!
  • water shooting out of the hose and off the floating sponge to mess up the stratification in the tank. Avoid this by lowering the flow rate if you can adjust your pump, or by floating a larger sponge.

P.S.: For more practical tips for tank experiments, check out the post “water seeks its level” in which I describe how to keep the water level in a tank constant despite having an inflow to the tank.

Double overflow

Because sometimes one overflow simply isn’t enough.

Finn’s group came up with – and ran – an overflow experiment with many different densities and even more colors. While the movie didn’t turn out too well, the idea was pretty awesome.

Rolf went ahead and modeled the experiment right away. And because the plume didn’t go across the second ridge in a dramatic enough fashion, he did the same experiment again, this time with a higher density contrast.

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Salinity – the higher, the redder, the lower, the bluer. Density higher than in the figure above. Figure courtesy of Rolf Käse

If you compare those two figures, you notice that the second one is a lot more diffusive than the first one. To test whether the model was doing well, we obviously had to run both experiments in the tank, too. Watch the movie below to see how they turned out:

Turns out that also for us, the run with the higher density contrast is a lot more diffusive. Kelvin-Helmholtz-instabilities develop on the first down slope of the first ridge, and generally a lot more mixing is going on. To get an impression of the regions of high mixing and recirculation, rather than guessing from the diffusing salinities, Rolf displayed the horizontal velocity:

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Along-tank velocity. Blue to the left, red to the right. Figure courtesy of Rolf Käse.

Notice the high mixing whenever the plume is running down a slope, and then the recirculations in the valleys. Pretty awesome, huh?