Tag Archives: melting ice cubes experiment

Why folic acid might be good for people, but not so good for tank experiments

I had to do the complete series of experiments, of course…

The other day I mentioned that I had used salt from my kitchen for the “ice cubes melting in fresh and salt water” experiment, and that that salt was the super healthy one that was both iodized and containing folic acid. And what happened is that the experiment looked like I was using milk. Not what I had envisioned.


Ice cubes melting in fresh water (left) and in iodized-salt-with-folic-acid water (right)

Since I had often before used just regular table salt – which is usually iodized – I was intrigued by the opaqueness that seemed to be due to the addition of folic acid. Or was it? That I had never noticed the milky-ness of the salt water didn’t necessarily mean that it had not been milky before. So this is what the same experiment looks like if regular iodized table salt is used:


Ice cubes melting in fresh water (left) and in iodized-salt water (right). Turbulence in the freshwater beaker due to me stirring (don’t ask)

In the literature it is always recommended to use kosher salt for experiments. Kosher meaning in this context that the salt should be only NaCl with no other additions. I happened to have some at hand after having bought it for the “teaching oceanography” workshop in San Francisco last year (after the salt that I brought for the workshop didn’t make it to the US. Long story). So this is what that looks like:


Ice cubes melting in fresh water (left) and in kosher salt water (right)

In summary: Folic acid is what makes the salt water look opaque – but iodized salt is completely fine for tank experiments. I think it’s tiny air bubbles that cling to something folic acid-y, but I have no clue what is going on. I noticed that the dusty stuff settled down over night (so the top experiment here is a lot clearer than the experiment I ran with the same batch of water the day before), but even the next day the water wasn’t completely clear.

Anyway, now we know. And I came out of this series with more movies of ice cubes melting in fresh water and salt water!

Links to previous posts on the topic after the cut.

[Edit: Using my mom’s iodized, but not folic acid containing, table salt leads to milky water, too. So there you have it. I have no clue what is going on!]

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Melting ice cubes, again

Somehow I am stuck on this demonstration!

I can’t let go of this experiment. Last time I posted about it, someone (Hallo Papa!) complained about the background and how I should set a timer and a ruler next to the beakers for scale. The background and timer I did something about, but the ruler I forgot. Oh well, at least there is room for improvement still, right?

I always find it fascinating to see how differently the ice melts in fresh water and salt water. Below you see how convection has completely mixed the fresh water with the melt water, whereas the melt water forms a layer on the salt water. You can even still distinguish horizontal currents in there!


The beakers after ice cubes have melted in fresh water (left) and salt water (right)

For everybody who still enjoys watching the experiment: Here is a movie. Top one as time lapse, bottom one in real time, all 8 minutes of it. Enjoy!

The links to the “melting ice cubes” series after the cut.

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Conducting experiments at EMSEA14

Kristin’s and my workshop at EMSEA14.

As I mentioned before, Kristin Richter and I are running the workshop “Conducting oceanographic experiments in a conventional classroom anywhere” at the European Marine Science Educator’s Association Meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden. There is quite an active Twitter crowd around, so you can follow the storyfied meeting or look out for #EMSEA14 on Twitter.

Our workshop has been represented quite well there, too, so I’ll just post a couple of my own pictures here.


Final preparations: Kristin is mixing salt water


Watching intently the melting ice. As my former boss would say: It’s like watching paint dry.


Except that it is really fascinating and that there are so many things to discuss!


Kristin and I took turns presenting the workshops, which was great. Plus it was really nice to have two instructors walking around, talking to the groups, instead of just one.


Kristin talking about using our favorite experiment to practice applying the scientific method.

For further reading, here are our slides.

Plus there are a lot of post dealing with the exact same experiment after the cut below. And there are two more posts on this exact experiment coming up that are scheduled already, one tomorrow, the other one in two weeks time. And thanks to a very nice family of participants I already have plenty of ideas of how to modify this experiment in the future!

[edit: There finally is a picture of me in the workshop, too, to show that I actually did contribute and not just leave it all to Kristin:


So I did actually do something, too, and not just take pictures. Plus did you notice how there is a EMSEA sign on the podium? There were signs on the doors, too, both on the inside and outside, so one of them was visible even when the door was wide open. Such good thinking of the organizers! Gothenburg University does have a seriously impressive infrastructure in any case: Tables and chairs on wheels so the whole room could easily be modified to suit our needs. Awesome.]


Melting ice cubes reloaded

Or why you should pay attention to the kind of salt you use for your experiments.

The melting ice cubes in salt and fresh water is one of my favorites that I haven’t written about in a long time, even though (or possibly: because) I wrote a whole series about it last year (see links at the end of this post).

Now that the EMSEA14 conference is almost upon us and Kristin and I busy preparing our workshop, I thought I’d run the experiment again and – for a change – take the time to finally know how much time to schedule for running the experiment. This is the experiment that I have run most often of all in all kinds of classes, but there you go… Usually I have more time than just 30 minutes, and there is so much other content I want to cover in that workshop!

There are a couple of things that I learned running this experiment again.

  • It takes at least 10 minutes to run the experiment. My water was slightly colder than usual room temperature, my ice cubes slightly smaller, though. And those 10 minutes are only the time the ice takes to melt, not the time it takes to hand out the materials and have the groups settle down.
  • There is a reason it is always recommended to use kosher salt for these kind of experiments. Look at the picture from one of the old posts in comparison to the ones from today: The iodized salt containing folic acid I had in my kitchen dissolves into really milky water. I really should have walked the two extra meters to get the good salt from my oceanography supplies in the other room!

Ice cubes melting in fresh water (left) and salt water (right) – old experiment


Ice cubes melting in fresh water (left) and salt water (right) – experiment today

  • Some food dyes are the devil. My whole kitchen is red. Plus the ice cubes didn’t freeze nicely (for a post on ice cubes freezing from salt water click here), the ice chipped when I tried to get the cubes out of the ice cube tray. I definitely can’t have that mess at a workshop. So here is another argument for using non-dyed ice cubes! The more important argument being that you think more if the cubes are not dyed and you don’t immediately see the explanation…

But it is always a fun experiment to run, and there are always new things to spot. Watch the video below and see for yourself! (Explanations on the weird phenomena coming up in a future post!)

The links to the “melting ice cubes” series:

Ice cubes melting in salt water and freshwater (post 1/4)

Ice cubes melting in fresh water and salt water (post 2/4)

Melting ice cubes – one experiment, many ways (post 3/4)

Melting ice cubes – what contexts to use this experiment in (post 4/4)

Other posts on this experiment:

Dangers of blogging, or ice cubes melting in fresh water and salt water

Guest post: The mystery of the cold room

Guest post: The mystery of the cold room

Guest post by Kristin Richter!
Today I’m excited to bring to you a guest post from Innsbruck, Austria, written by my friend Kristin Richter. Kristin ran the oceanography lab in Bergen before I took over, and she is a total enabler when it comes to deciding between playing with water, ice and food dye, or doing “real” work. Plus she always has awesome ideas of what else one could try for fun experiences. We just submitted an abstract for a conference together, so keep your fingers crossed for us – you might be able to come see us give a workshop on experiments in oceanography teaching pretty soon! But now, over to Kristin.
A little while ago, I made an interesting experience while presenting some science to students and the general public on the “Day of Alpine Science”  in Innsbruck using hands-on experiments. Actually, my task was to talk about glaciers but being a physical oceanographer I felt like I was on thin ice. Well, glaciers, I thought, hmmm … ice, melting ice, going into the sea, … sea, … sea ice! And I remembered how Mirjam once showed a nice experiment to me and some friends about melting ice in fresh and salt water. And suddenly I was all excited about the idea.
To at least mention the glaciers, I planned to fill two big food boxes with water, have ice float (and melt) in one of the tanks and put ice on top of a big stone (Greenland) in another tank filled with water to show the different impact of melting land ice and sea ice on sea level. Since melting the ice would take a while (especially on a chilly morning outside in early April) I would have enough time to present the “actual” experiment – coloured ice cubes melting in two cups of water – one with freshwater, and the other one with salt water.
Screen Shot 2014-04-24 at 12.17.01

Melting ice. A comparison of sea ice and glaciers melting’s impact on sea level, ice cubes melting in fresh and salt water on the right. Photo by “Forschungsschwerpunkt Alpiner Raum”, University of Innsbruck.

As we expected many groups with many students, I needed a lot of ice. I told the organizers so (“I need a lot of ice, you know, frozen water”) and they said no problem, they will turn on their cooling chamber. The day before, I went there and put tons of water into little cups and ice cube bags into the chamber to freeze over night.The next morning – some hundreds of students had already  arrived and were welcomed in the courtyard – I went to get some ice for the first group. I opened the cooling chamber,… and froze instantly. Not so very much because of the cold temperature but because I was met by lots of ice cube bags and little cups with… water. Like in LIQUID WATER! Cold liquid water, yeah, but still LIQUID! Arrrghhhh, my class was about to begin in a few minutes and I had NO ICE. “Ah, yes”, volunteered the friendly caretaker, “come to think of it, it is just a cooling chamber!”I started panicking, until a colleague pointed out the Sacher Cafe (this is Austria after all) and their ice machine across the road. I never really appreciated ice machines, but that one along with the friendly staff saved the day. Luckily, I brought some colored ice cubes from at home – so I was all set to start.

Screen Shot 2014-04-24 at 12.16.50

Ice melting in fresh water (left) and salt water (right). Photo by “Forschungsschwerpunkt Alpiner Raum”, University of Innsbruck.

And the station was a big success, the students were all interested, asked many questions and were excited about the colored melt water sinking and not sinking. :-)  I even managed to “steal” some students from the neighboring station of my dear meteorology colleagues. That was something I was particularly proud of as they could offer a weather station, lots of fun instruments to play with and a projector to show all of their fancy data on a big screen. (Actually, I also abandoned my station for a while to check out their weather balloon.)

Anyway, I had a lot of fun that day and could definitely relate to Mirjams enthusiasm for this kind of teaching. I can’t wait for the next opportunity to share some of those simple yet cool experiments with interested students. I will bring my own ice though!


Dangers of blogging, or ice cubes melting in fresh water and salt water

When students have read blog posts of mine before doing experiments in class, it takes away a lot of the exploration.

Since I was planning to blog about the CMM31 course, I had told students that I often blogged about my teaching and asked for their consent to share their images and details from our course. So when I was recently trying to do my usual melting of ice cubes in fresh water and salt water experiment (that I dedicated a whole series on, details below this post), the unavoidable happened. I asked students what they thought – which one would melt faster, the ice cube in fresh water or in salt water. And not one, but two out of four student groups said that the ice cube in fresh water would melt faster.

Student groups conducting the experiment.

Since I couldn’t really ignore their answers, I asked what made them think that. And one of the students came out with the complete explanation, while another one said “because I read your blog”! Luckily the first student with the complete answer talked so quickly that none of the other – unprepared – students had a chance to understand what was going on, so we could run the experiment without her having given everything away. But I guess what I should learn from this is that I have taken enough pictures of students doing this particular experiment so that I can stop alerting them to the fact that they can oftentimes prepare for my lectures by reading up on what my favorite experiments are. But on the upside – how awesome is it that some of the students are motivated enough to dig through all my blog posts and to even read them carefully?

For posts on this experiment have a look a post 1 and 2 showing different variation of the experiment, post 3 discussing different didactical approaches and post 4 giving different contexts to use the experiment in.

Melting ice cubes – what contexts to use this experiment in (post 4/4)

What contexts can the “ice cubes melting in fresh water and in salt water” experiment be used in?

As you might have noticed, I really like the “ice cubes melting in fresh water and in salt water” experiment. Initially, I had only three posts planned on the topic (post 1 and 2 showing different variation of the experiment and post 3 discussing different didactical approaches to the experiment), but here we are again. Since I like this experiment so much – here are suggested contexts in which to use the experiment.

1) The scientific method.

No matter what introductory class you teach, at some point you will talk about the scientific method. And what is better than talking about the scientific method? Correct, having students experience the scientific method! This experiment is really well suited for that, because you can be fairly sure that most students will come up with a hypothesis that their experiment will not support.

2) Laboratory protocols.

For courses that include a laboratory component (like mine does), at some point you will have to talk about how to document your experiments. Again, since the hypothesis will typically not be supported by the results of the experiment, this is a great example on how important it is to write down the hypothesis and how you are planning on testing it, and then noting all the observations, not only the one that are along the lines of what you suspected. Also recording the little errors that occur along the way (“someone swapped the cups with the ice cubes, so we are not sure any more which one is which”) is very important, and if you have a class doing this experiment, you can be sure that at some point someone will make a mistake, not write it down and then be very confused afterwards. Great teaching and learning opportunity!

3) Different teaching methods.

If you are teaching about didactical models, this experiment is very well suited for this, too (see my post 3 on the topic and the Lawrence Hall of Science resource). Just have different people work on the experiment using the different methods and then discuss what and especially how people learned using those methods. The Lawrence Hall of Science resource mentions a fourth method (and I didn’t want to give the impression that I am recommending it, therefore I omitted it in my post 3) – the “read and answer” method, where students read about density, stratification and density-driven circulation and then answer questions like “what is density?” or “what is thermohaline circulation”. Again, not recommended for your oceanography class, but adding this option might be very relevant if you are teaching students or educators how to (not) teach.

4) Oceanography and climate

Yes, this is probably the main reason why you are doing this experiment in class. Now you can talk about salt in the ocean. About density-driven currents (and are there other things that drive currents apart from density differences?). About the importance of ocean currents, heat transport, the global overturning circulation, fresh water and many more.

Can you think of more contexts for this great experiment? Let me know! (Depending on your browser, you can comment on this post in the “leave a reply” box below or, if you don’t see that box, by clicking the speech bubble next to the title of the post.)

Melting ice cubes – one experiment, many ways (post 3/4)

Different didactical settings in which the “ice cubes melting in fresh and salt water” experiment can be used.

In part 1 and 2 of this series, I showed two different ways of using the “ice cubes melting in fresh water and salt water” experiment in lectures. Today I want to back up a little bit and discuss reasons for choosing one over the other version in different contexts.

Depending on the purpose, there are several ways of framing this experiment. This is very nicely discussed in materials from the Lawrence Hall of Science (link here), too, even though my discussion is a little different from theirs.

1) A demonstration.

If you want to show this experiment rather than having students conduct it themselves, using colored ice cubes is the way to go (see experiment here). The dye focuses the observer’s attention on the melt water and makes it much easier to observe the experiment from a distance, on a screen or via a projector. Dying the ice cubes makes understanding much easier, but it also diminishes the feeling of exploration a lot – there is no mystery involved any more.

Demonstration of melting ice cubes. The melt water is clearly marked by the dye. This makes it a good demonstration, but diminishes the satisfying feeling of discovery by the observer, because the processes are clearly visible right away rather than having to be explored.

2) A structured activity.

Students are handed (non-colored) ice cubes, cups with salt water and fresh water and are asked to make a prediction about which of the ice cubes is going to melt faster. Students test their hypothesis, find the results of the experiment in support with it or not, and we discuss. This is how I usually use this experiment in class (see discussion here).

The advantage of using this approach is that students have clear instructions that they can easily follow. Depending on how observant the group is, instructions can be very detailed (“Start the stop watch when you put the ice cubes in the water. Write down the time when the first ice cube has melted completely, and which of the ice cubes it was. Write down the time when the second ice cube has melted completely. …”) or more open (“observe the ice cubes melting”).

3) A problem-solving exercise.

In this case, students are given the materials, but they are not told which of the cups contains fresh or salt water (and they are instructed not to taste). Now students are asked to design an experiment to figure out which cup contains what.

This is a very nice exercise and students learn a lot from designing the experiment themselves. However, this also takes a very long time, more than I can usually afford to spend on experiments in class. After all, I am doing at least one hands-on activity in each of the lectures, but am still covering the same content from the text book as previous lecturers who used their 180 minutes per week just lecturing. And I am considering completely flipping my class room, but I am not there yet.

4) An open-ended investigation.

In this case, students are handed the materials, knowing which cup contains fresh and salt water. But instead of being asked a specific question, they are told to use the materials to learn as much as they can about salt water, fresh water, temperature and density.

As with the problem-solving exercise, this is a very time-intensive undertaking that does not seem feasible in the framework we are operating in. Also it is hard to predict what kind of experiments the students will come up with, and if they will learn what you want them to learn. On the other hand, students typically learn much more because they are free to explore and not bound by a specific instruction from you.

Ice cubes melting in fresh water and salt water (post 2/4)

The “ice cubes melting in fresh water and salt water” experiment the way I usually use it in class.

— Edit — For an updated description of this experiment please go to this page! — Edit —

You might remember the “ice cubes melting in fresh water and salt water experiment” from a couple of days ago. Today we are going to talk about it again, but with a little twist on it. See, when I showed you the experiment the other day, I used dyed ice cubes, so the melt water was colored and it was easy to track. Doing that, I focussed you attention on the melt water. This is not how we do it in class.

In class, students get clear ice cubes, and before they put them in the cups, I ask them to make a prediction. Which of the ice cubes will melt faster, the one in fresh water or the one in salt water? Everybody has to make a prediction. And having run this experiment with 100+ people by now, I can tell you: Approximately 5% predict the right outcome. And that is not 5% of the general population [edit: this used to say “5% of the general circulation”!], that is 5% of people who were either attending my class or a workshop on oceanography with me, who were attending a workshop on teaching oceanography, or my nerdy friends. So don’t be sad if you get it wrong – you are in good company.

So now that everybody has made a prediction, the ice cubes go into the cups with fresh water and salt water. In the beginning, the excitement is usually moderate. After all, you are staring at a plastic cup with an ice cube floating in it. But then, after the first minute or so, there is no denying any more: The ice cubes have started melting. And one of them is melting a lot faster than the other one. The one in fresh water is melting a lot faster than the one in salt water! How can this be? At this point, students typically start secretly (because remember – no tasting in the lab!) tasting the water in the cups to make sure that they didn’t actually swap the cups. After all, it should be the ice cube in the salt water melting faster, shouldn’t it?

But no, it is true: The ice cube in fresh water is melting faster than the one in salt water. But how??? Enter food coloring.


Dyed ice cubes melting in fresh water (left) and salt water (right). Edited on Sept. 14th, 2014. Since this seems to be the most popular post on this blog I thought people might appreciate a better picture… And if you are really curious go check out the newer posts on the topic, a lot has happened over the last year!

Glasses filled with fresh water and salt water, and one ice cube in each. Drops of food dye have been added on the ice cubes to visualize the circulation. The left glass is homogeneously pink, whereas the right glass has a pink layer on top and only little pink below that layer.

If at this stage one or two drops of food coloring are dripped on the ice cubes, this dye helps visualize the circulation similarly to the dyed melt water I showed you the other day [which, incidentally, one of the student groups yesterday observed without food dye or me prompting. Great job!].

And now the whole thing makes much more sense: In the fresh water case, melt water is denser than the water in the cup and sinks to the bottom of the cup. As it is sinking away from the ice cube, it is being replaced with warmer water from the cup. Hence the ice cube is always floating in relatively warm water which helps it melt.

Sketch showing the explanation for why the ice cubes melt faster in fresh water than in salt water.

In salt water, on the other hand, the melt water forms a layer on top of the water in the cup. Even though it is very cold, it is still less dense than the salty water in the cup. The ice cube is more and more surrounded by its own melt water and not by the warmer water in the cup as was the ice cube in the fresh water. Therefore, the ice cube in the fresh water is melting faster than the one in salt water!

The experiment run in the lecture theater.

This experiment is easy to run in all kinds of settings. However it helps if the student groups are spaced out enough so that the instructor can reach all of the groups and listen in on the conversations to get a feel of how close to a solution the students are, or chat to the students to help them figure it out.

There will be two follow-up posts to this one: One about different didactical settings, and one different contexts this experiment can be used in.

Ice cubes melting in salt water and freshwater (post 1/4)

Experiment to visualize the effects of density differences on ocean circulation.

This is the first post in a series on one of my favorite in-class experiments; I have so much to say about it that we’ll have to break it up into several posts.

Post 1 (this post) will present one setup of the experiment, but no explanations yet.

Post 2 will present how I use this experiment in GEOF130, including explanations.

Post 3 will discuss how this experiment can be used in many different setups  and

Post 4 will discuss different purposes this experiment can be used in (seriously – you can use it for anything! almost…).

So, let’s get to the experiment. First, ice cubes are inserted into two cups, one filled with fresh water at room temperature, the other one filled with salt water at room temperature. In this case, the ice cubes are dyed with food coloring and you will quickly see why:

Ice cubes are added to cups filled with water at room temperature: fresh water on the left, salt water on the right.

As the ice cubes start to melt, we can see the dyed melt water behaving very differently in fresh water and salt water. In fresh water, it quickly sinks to the bottom of the cup, whereas in salt water it forms a layer at the surface.

Melt water from the ice cube is sinking towards the bottom in the cup containing fresh water (on the left), but it is staying near the surface in the cup containing salt water (on the right).

After approximately 10 minutes, the ice cube in freshwater has melted completely, whereas in salt water there are still remains of the ice cube.

After 10 minutes, the ice cube in the fresh water cup has melted completely (left), whereas the one in the salt water cup is not gone completely yet (right).

Why should one of the ice cubes melt so much faster than the other one, even though both cups contained water at the same (room) temperature? Many of you will know the answer to this, and others will be able to deduce it from the different colors of the water in the cups, but the rest of you will have to wait for an explanation until the next post on this topic – we will be doing this experiment in class on Tuesday and I can’t spoil the fun for the students by posting the answer today already! But if you want to watch a movie of the whole experiment: Here it is!

(Yes, this really is how I spend my rainy Sunday mornings, and I love it!)

– I first saw this experiment at the 2012 Ocean Sciences meeting when Bob Chen of COSEE introduced it in a workshop “understanding how people learn”. COSEE has several instructions for this experiment online, for example here and here. My take on it in the “on the Cutting Edge – Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty” collection here.