Spot on Science: Winter phenomena

WHEN OLD MAN WINTER REARS HIS ICY HEAD, MUCH OF THE COUNTRY BECOMES A WINTER WONDERLAND -- COMPLETE WITH SOME PRETTY COOL SIGHTS THAT EVEN WINTER-SEASON-SKEPTICS CAN’T DENY! FOR INSTANCE, YOU MIGHT THINK OF BLOWING BUBBLES AS A SUMMERTIME ACTIVITY, BUT IN THE VERY COLD, BUBBLES DON’T POP…THEY FREEZE! BREAKING THEM IS A BIT LIKE TEARING SOME VERY THIN PAPER.

BUT THERE’S MORE TO THESE ICE BUBBLES THAN MEET THE EYE -- EVERY BUBBLE IS MADE UP OF THREE INDIVIDUAL LAYERS: A THIN LAYER OF WATER MOLECULES SQUISHED BETWEEN TWO LAYERS OF SOAP. IT MIGHT LOOK LIKE THE ENTIRE SURFACE OF THE BUBBLE IS FREEZING, BUT WHAT YOU’RE ACTUALLY SEEING IS THE INNERMOST LAYER OF WATER—WHICH FREEZES AT WARMER TEMPERATURES THAN SOAPY WATER—TURNING TO ICE WITHIN THE SOAPY FILM. BUT THERE’S A CATCH! BECAUSE SOAP IS A GREAT INSULATOR – LIKE A GOOD WINTER COAT -- THIS TRICK WILL ONLY WORK IF IT’S COLDER THAN -13 DEGREES. I WASN’T KIDDING WHEN I SAID “VERY COLD”!

BUT SOMETIMES MOTHER NATURE GIVES US A SHOW THAT DOESN’T REQUIRE PROPS! LIKE THESE ICE BALLS FLOATING IN LAKE MICHIGAN. THEY’RE THE SIZE OF BASKETBALLS, BUT YOU WON’T SEE LEBRON DUNKING WITH ONE OF THESE GUYS – THEY WEIGH ABOUT 50 POUNDS EACH! THEY’RE THE RESULT OF A COLD AND SPLASHY LAKE.

SMALL BITS OF ICE IN THE SUPER COLD LAKE ARE PUSHED BY WAVES, BUILDING LAYER UPON LAYER OF MORE ICE – SORT OF THE SAME WAY YOU BUILD A SNOWBALL BY ROLLING IT OVER SNOW! THE WIND TAKES THEM ASHORE, WHERE THEY MAKE THE GREAT LAKE LOOK LIKE A GREAT BIG BOWL OF CEREAL.

OUR LAST COLD-WEATHER MYSTERY LOOKS LIKE IT COULD BE A MESSAGE FROM ALIENS. THIN CIRCLES OF ICE HAVE BEEN SPINNING IN LAKES AND RIVERS FOR YEARS – AND, LATELY, VIRAL VIDEOS OF THE PHENOMENON HAVE BEEN BLOWING MINDS. BUT THESE GIANT ICE CIRCLES AREN’T EXTRATERRESTRIAL – THEY’RE ACTUALLY JUST THE RESULT OF SLOWLY MELTING ICE. WHEN WATER MELTS OFF OF ICE, IT DOESN’T SINK STRAIGHT DOWN, BUT RATHER SPIRALS SLIGHTLY HORIZONTALLY, CAUSING THE REMAINING ICE TO ROTATE AND FORM A CIRCLE. IT’S LIKE JACK FROST’S NIFTY PARTY TRICK!

OK, I’M ABOUT READY TO THAW OUT. BUT WHILE YOU WAIT FOR THE SUNSHINE OF SUMMER, TAKE THE TIME TO APPRECIATE THE ICY BEAUTY AROUND YOU – BECAUSE WINTER IS COOLER THAN COOL – IT’S ICE COLD!

Instructional Links

Website Article, 20 Must-Try Winter Science Experiments for Kids

Website Article: National Snow and Ice Data Center, Snow

Video: PBS LearningMedia, Lessons in Matter and Energy, Ice Bomb | Experiment and lesson plan

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