Beijing 2022: Why Are Ice and Snow Slippery?

Close-up of ice skates on an outdoor icy surface

Although every Olympic winter sport relies on the slippery nature of snow and ice, exactly why those substances are so slippery has been an enduring mystery. Michael Faraday hypothesized in the nineteenth century that ice may have a thin, liquid-like layer at its surface, something that modern studies have repeatedly found.

One recent study used an entirely new instrument to probe the characteristics of this lubrication layer and found that it is only a few hundred nanometers thick. But the fluid in this layer is nothing like the water we’re used to. Instead it has a viscosity more akin to oil and its response to deformation is shear-thinning and viscoelastic, more like the complex fluids in our kitchens and bodies than pure, simple water. They found that using a hydrophobic probe modified the interfacial viscosity even further, which finally provides a hint at the mechanism behind waxing skis and skates. 

Fortunately for us, we’ve found plenty of ways to employ and enjoy water’s slipperiness, even as the mystery of it slowly gives way to understanding. (Image credit: M. Fournier; research credit: L. Canale et al.; via Physics World; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

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