Tag Archives: sea ice

Update on freezing ice cubes and the temperature distribution in our freezer

After writing the blog post on sea ice formation, brine release and what ice cubes can tell you about your freezer earlier today, I prepared some more ice cubes (because you can never have too many ice cubes for kitchen oceanography!), and then happened to look into the freezer a couple of hours later. And this is what I found:

Isn’t that beautiful?

Top pic shows the ice cubes “in situ”, clearly showing the cold back wall of the freezer where they were sitting.

Bottom left pic shows a top view of those ice cubes and it is very obvious that they have been starting to freeze from the back wall of the freezer forward: The upper row of ice cubes in the pic has formed clear ice in the direction towards that wall and has pushed the dye forward, whereas the bottom row in the pic is still not completely frozen and ice cubes seem to be freezing from all sides towards the middle and not as distinctly from back to front.

Bottom right pic: The rest of the water I prepared for the ice cubes that I left sitting on the counter for future use — still looks well mixed, no sinking of the dye to be observed!

And with these exciting updates I’ll leave you for now, so start playing with your own ice cubes! :-)

Sea ice formation, brine release, or: What ice cubes can tell you about your freezer

Many of my kitchen oceanography experiments use dyed ice cubes, usually because it makes it easier to track the melt water (for example when looking at how quickly ice cubes melt in freshwater vs salt water, or for forcing overturning circulations).

But the dyed ice cubes tell interesting stories all by themselves, too!

Salt water doesn’t freeze

“Salt water doesn’t freeze”? Then how do we get sea ice in the Arctic, for example?

When freshwater freezes, the water molecules arrange in a hexagonal crystal structure. If there is salt (or anything else) in the water, however, the ions don’t fit into the regular structure. Ice freezes from the water molecules, and all the disturbances like salt get pushed in the last remaining bits of liquid water, which therefore gets higher and higher concentrations of whatever was dissolved in it. As those little pockets with high concentrations of salt get cooled further, more and more water molecules will freeze to the surrounding freshwater ice, leading to even higher concentrations of salt in the remaining liquid water. So the freshwater is freezing, while rejecting the salt.

Of course if you cool for long enough, also the last bit of remaining water will freeze eventually, but that takes surprisingly long (as you can try by freezing salt water in some of the cups ice cube trays and freshwater in others, for comparison. Also the structures of freshwater vs saltwater ice look very different and are interesting to look at, see how here).

“Brine release”

When the ocean freezes, this rejection of high-salinity water leads to interesting phenomena: Even when you melt it again to include all the pockets of high salinity water, sea ice will have salinities way lower than the water it froze from. This is because of a process called brine release. Since you are cooling the ocean from above, sea ice also forms from the surface downwards. This means that it is easy for the salty water to be pushed, “released”, or “rejected”, downwards, into the liquid ocean below. That ocean will then of course get more salty right below the ice!

In the picture below you see something similar happening in the left pictures. Instead of salt, I have used blue food dye for visualization purposes. In the top left, you see an ice cube exactly as it looked when I took it out of the ice cube tray it froze in, and in the bottom left you see the same one after I let it melt a little bit so the surface got smoother and it got easier to look inside (a lot more difficult to hold on to, though!).

Do you see how the top part of the ice cube is pretty much clear, while the bottom part is blue? That’s because it froze top-to-bottom and the dye got pushed down during the initial freezing process!

Stuck in an ice cube tray

Something else that you see in the top left picture is the effect of the ice cube being stuck in the ice cube tray as it froze: Pores filled with blue dye that had nowhere to escape!

Had I taken out those ice cubes earlier, when they had just frozen half way through, we would have found a clear ice layer floating on a cold, blue ocean. Maybe I should do that next time!

Checking on the temperature distribution of your freezer

Something else fun we can observe from the right pictures: Here, the dye was concentrated towards the center of the ice cube rather than the bottom! How did that happen?

My theory is that those ice cubes were located in an area of the freezer that was cooling from all sides (more or less) equally, whereas the ones shown on the left must have been placed somewhere where cooling happened mainly from the top.

So if you ever want to know where the cooling in your freezer happens, just put lots of dyed little water containers everywhere and check from which side the dye gets rejected — that’s the cooling side! Actually, I might check that for the freezer below just for fun. Would you be interested in seeing that done?

Now it’s your turn!

Let’s look back at the ice cubes I froze yesterday in the picture above. I’ve now written about a lot of things I see when I look at them. What else do you see? Do you think it’s interesting to use with kids, for example? I’ve used those experiments with first year university students, too, I think there is plenty to observe and explain here!

Guest post: Arctic sea ice thinning.

Exciting guest post on a newly published paper by Angelika H. H. Renner.

I’ve met Angelika on a cruise in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current a long time ago where we worked on an instrument together and created an advent calendar to keep up everybody’s morale during the second month of the cruise before flying home on christmas eve, and we’ve since gone white(ish) water kayaking, hiking in the norwegian mountains, visited each other’s institutes, helped each other out in research and teaching crises (mainly Geli helping me out, to be honest ;-), and we are planning an exciting project together. Angelika and coauthors recently published the paperEvidence of Arctic sea ice thinning from direct observations“. In today’s post, Angelika writes about how the observations that went into the paper were obtained, and I am excited to share her story – and her amazing photos – with all of you.

There’s been so much liquid water on Mirjam’s blog lately, I was happy to take her invitation for a guest blog to bring back some of the most amazing, interesting, and beautiful variation of sea water: sea ice!

Sea ice comes in various shapes, from very flat, smooth, and thin sheets of newly formed ice to huge ridges several tens of meters thick. Assessing the thickness of the sea ice cover in the Arctic remains one of the biggest challenges in sea ice research. Luckily, methods become more refined, and numbers derived from satellite measurements become more accurate and reliable, but they don’t cover a long enough period yet to say much about long-term changes.

My first proper science cruise in 2005 went to Fram Strait, the region between Greenland and Svalbard. I learned how to measure sea ice thickness the hard way: drilling holes. And more holes. And even more holes. Or the slightly-less-hard way: carry an instrument around that uses electromagnetic induction to measure ice thickness (since sea ice is much less salty than sea water and therefore much less conductive). This instrument is called ”EM31” and we kept joking that the number comes from its weight in kilograms…. So, using drills and the EM31 we measured on as many ice floes as we could and given that the cruise went all the way across Fram Strait, that gave as quite a few datapoints covering quite a large area.

These measurements have been done by the sea ice group at the Norwegian Polar Institute every summer since 2003, and in some years also in spring. It takes dedication to build such a time series! When we could, we also used an airborne version of the EM31, the EM-bird, to do surveys over larger areas. Now, finally, the results of all these measurement have been processed, and analysed – and what do we see? The sea ice in Fram Strait is thinning a lot. Depending which measure you use (nothing about sea ice thickness is straight forward…), the ice has thinned by more than 50% over the 10 years from 2003 to 2012!

It’s one thing to know that it has thinned, but it’s a lot more interesting to find out why. Fram Strait is a special place: Most of the sea ice that is formed somewhere in the Arctic Ocean (and doesn’t melt there again) leaves the Arctic through Fram Strait. It is a very dynamic region with strong currents and winds, which results in a lot of deformed ice regardless of its age. The extent of the ice cover here is not necessarily linked to the development of the ice in the Arctic Basin – most prominent example was the heavy ice year in Fram Strait 2007 whereas this was up to then the year with the lowest Arctic-wide ice extent in the satellite era.

We looked in more detail at where the ice came from and found that this, too, does not correlate with our thickness time series. While the source region of the ice varied from year to year, it was continuously thinning – in our opinion a sign that the thinning occurs Arctic-wide.

A lot of effort went into this paper and the dataset behind it, and I was very very lucky that I got the opportunity to participate in several of the cruises, do the data analysis and write the paper. It’s even more satisfying to see your work published when you know how much work drilling all those holes was……

Why melting sea ice does not contribute to sea level rise.

Simple experiment on why the impact of glaciers and sea ice on sea level, respectively, are not the same.

It could be so simple: An ice cube sinks into water until the mass it replaces is equal to its own mass.

The mug is as full with water as it gets. But even if I stared out of the window at the mountain and the snow until this swimming piece of ice had completely melted – the water level in the mug would not have changed.

Since the mass of said ice cube is not changing when it melts, under the assumption that the difference in volume due to the temperature difference of the melt water and the water in which the ice cube swims is negligible (reasonable assumption in most cases) that means that a swimming ice cube can’t change the water level in a cup and a swimming ice berg can’t change sea level. Things are different for glaciers or other ice that is sitting on land rather than freely swimming.


I should have thought about how I would transport the plate on which the mug with the ice is sitting back to the kitchen once the ice has melted. In other words: Yes, the mug will spill over.

This is a very easy demonstration and while it is intuitive that in the second case a mug that was completely filled with water when the ice was first added will spill over once the ice melts, the first case seems to be very difficult. Most students are not quite sure what they are expecting to see, and even if they are, they don’t really know why.

My typical drawing to explain this topic. The potato is supposed to be an ice berg floating in water.

I have always been teaching this by drawing the water level and the ice berg on the board, and then by marking the volume of the whole ice berg and the part of it that is under water, and trying to stress how the mass of the ice berg is the same as that of the water replaced by the part of the ice berg that is under water (because the molecules are more densely packed in liquid water and yada yada) — there must surely be a better way to explain this? Any ideas out there?

Experiments the Isafjördur way. Can you spot the two mugs and the ice in the middle of the window sill? Floating ice on the left, a “glacier” resting on forks above the water level on the right.