Sochi 2014: Why is Ice Slippery?

Ice is a key component of many Winter Olympic disciplines, including figure skating, hockey, speed skating, curling, and the sliding sports. The low friction and slippery nature of the ice are vital to the events, but oddly enough, scientists don’t yet fully understand why ice is slippery. A common explanation is that the narrow blades on which athletes compete cause extremely high pressures that locally melts the ice, creating a thin layer of water upon which the athlete glides. The trouble with this explanation is that it only accounts for ice being slippery within a few degrees of its melting point. Not only that, anyone who has fallen when walking on ice knows that it is slippery even without ice skates. In 1859 physicist Michael Faraday suggested that ice may be covered in a thin liquid-like layer even at temperatures well below freezing. Experiments since then suggest that this layer is tens or hundreds of nanometers thick, depending on the purity of the surface film. Robert Rosenberg has an excellent review of the subject in Physics Today. (Image credit: Reuters/D. Gray via The Big Picture)

This post opens up our series on fluid dynamics in the Winter Olympics. Stay tuned for more over the next two weeks. Got a question in mind? Seen a great article? Feel free to ask questions or submit links on Tumblr, Twitter, or by email.

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