Ice spike

Upward projection of ice from surface of frozen water body

Classic spike form
Ice candle form
Inverted pyramid form

An ice spike is an ice formation, often in the shape of an inverted icicle, that projects upwards from the surface of a body of frozen water. Ice spikes created by natural processes on the surface of small bodies of frozen water have been reported for many decades, although their occurrence is quite rare. A mechanism for their formation, now known as the Bally–Dorsey model, was proposed in the early 20th century but this was not tested in the laboratory for many years. In recent years a number of photographs of natural ice spikes have appeared on the Internet as well as methods of producing them artificially by freezing distilled water in domestic refrigerators or freezers. This has allowed a small number of scientists to test the hypothesis in a laboratory setting and, although the experiments appear to confirm the validity of the Bally–Dorsey model, they have raised further questions about how natural ice spikes form, and more work remains to be done before the phenomenon is fully understood. Natural ice spikes can grow into shapes other than a classic spike shape, and have been variously reported as ice candles, ice towers or ice vases as there is no standard nomenclature for these other forms. One particularly unusual form takes the shape of an inverted pyramid.

Although natural ice spikes are usually measured in inches or centimeters, a report that appeared in the Harbor Creek Historical Society Newsletter by Canadian Gene Heuser, who hiked across frozen Lake Erie in 1963, spoke of \"small pinholes in the ice through which the water below was periodically forced under pressure to spout up into the air and freeze\" producing five-foot-high (1.5 m) \"frozen spurts that looked to him like telephone poles standing straight up all over the lake\".

Three ice spikes growing in the freezing compartment of a domestic refrigerator

Small ice spikes can be formed artificially on ice cubes produced in domestic refrigerators; using distilled water in plastic ice cube trays. The formation of the spike is similar to that of the naturally occurring spike in that the expansion of interior water and, the reduction of volume in the interior of the cube, increase the pressure on the water pushing it upward through the hole. The growth of the tube ceases when the drop at the top of the tube freezes entirely, which is substantially before the rest of the water in the cube is frozen. This method produces small spikes which are usually round or triangular in cross section with sharp tips. Experiments using this method have been carried out in laboratory settings but it has been found that spikes are less likely to form in ice cubes made from non-distilled water as impurities in the water inhibit spike formation. This poses the question of how naturally occurring ice spikes form in tapwater or rainwater and, Libbrecht and Lui have suggested that, in the case of the small spikes grown in a refrigerator, impurities will become increasingly concentrated in the small unfrozen droplet at the top of the tube reducing the freezing rate and so the growth of the tube. However, they believe that on the rare occasions when exceptionally large spikes grow in natural, outdoor ice formations, some other mechanism must remove the impurities that build up at the top of the growing tube. Either impurities are forced into pockets that freeze more slowly, or perhaps a convective flow, which would be insignificant in the smaller, artificially grown spikes, replaces the water at the top of the tube with fresh water from below.

The results of the work carried out at Caltech have suggested experiments that might further elucidate this phenomenon.


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