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! :-))


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).


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! :-)

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!

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 in order to make room for static pages of my favorite experiments or teaching tips right at the landing site 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!

Tides in a glass

A very simple experiment to show how waves can travel around an ocean basin.

I wrote these instructions for a book project that I was lucky enough to get involved in at the very last minute and figured I could just share them here, too. Why not try a new style every once in a while? You tidal purists out there – come up with a better experiment if you aren’t happy with this one! :-)

  • Age: 6 years and above
  • Group size: 1-3 per group
  • Time: 15 min
  • Topic: Tides in enclosed basins 

Resources and Materials:

  • 1 clear plastic cup
  • 1 waterproof pen
  • water


[In a previous experiment] we have learned how tides are caused by the sun and the moon. In the picture there, we see the two “mountains” of water that form on either sided of the earth. The earth rotates underneath those two “mountains” of water, which is what causes high tides twice a day.

But what happens when those “mountains” of water reach a coast? Clearly the continents are not flooded twice a day every day, so the “mountains” of water cannot travel all the way around the globe undisturbed. What does happen instead is that the tidal wave will propagate around the rim of an ocean basin, even in semi-enclosed basins like the North Sea, which we will show in the experiment below.

  1. Fill the plastic cup approximately half full with water.
  2. Mark the still water level with a permanent marker.
  3. Gently start twirling the cup and observe how the water level starts changing: On one side of the cup it rises, on the other side it falls.
  4. Continue twirling the cup and observe how the “mountain” of water moves all the way round the cup, leaning against the side of the cup, and how opposite of the “mountain” a “valley” forms that also travels around the cup.
  5. Mark those two new water levels: The higher one is the high tide line of your ocean in a cup, the lower one the low tide line.
Figure 1: Twirl a cup filled with water to see how tides propagate around an ocean basin

This is how high tide and low tide travel around an ocean basin. In the real world, though, coastlines are not as smooth as the walls of a cup, and also ocean basins are connected to each other, so tides in different basins interact. For a real world example, look at the tides in the North Sea, shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Simplified timing of tides in the North Sea.



Water seeks its level.

A solution for the siphon problem of the fjord circulation experiment.

After having run the fjord circulation experiments for several years in a row with several groups of students each year, Pierre and I finally figured out a good way to keep the water level in the tank constant. As you might remember from the sketch in the previous post or can see in the figure below, initially we used to have the tank separated in a main compartment and a reservoir.

 But there were a couple of problems associated with this setup. Once, the lock separating the two parts of the tank fell over during the experiment. Then there are bound to be leaks. Sometimes we forget to empty the reservoir and the water level rises to critical levels. In short, it’s a hassle.

So the next year, we decided to run the experiment in a big sink and tip the tank slightly, so that water would just flow out at the lower end at the same rate that it was being added on the other side. Which kinda worked, but it was messy.

So this year, we came up with the perfect solution. The experiment is still being run in a sink, but now a hose, completely filled with water, connects the main tank with a beaker. The hight of the rim of the beaker is set to the desired water level of the big tank. Now when we add water to the big tank, there is an (almost – if the hose isn’t wide enough) instant outflow, so the water level in the tank stays the same.

New setup: A bubble-free hose connecting the tank and a reservoir to regulate the water level in the tank.

This way, we also get to regulate the depth from where the outflowing water is being removed. Neat, isn’t it?