Icicles and Impurities

Impurities in the water cause these horizontal ripples seen on icicles.

In nature, icicles often form horizontal ripples along their outer surface. Researchers found that these shapes only form when impurities are present in the water forming icicles; icicles made from pure water are smooth. Now researchers are uncovering more details of the ripple formation process, though the underlying mechanism remains unknown.

Cross-sections of an icicle reveal chevron-like inclusions of impurities.
Icicle using sodium fluorescein as an impurity. a) A vertical cross-section through the icicle shows chevron-like inclusions where impurities are concentrated. b) A similar icicle using salt as the impurity shows a similar pattern. c) A horizontal cross-section through the icicle reveals tree-like rings of concentrated impurities.

Researchers first grew wavy icicles, then melted through them to reveal cross-sections of the icicle. They found chevron-like patterns within the ice, corresponding to areas with higher concentrations of impurities. The team think these chevrons record the process by which flowing water accumulates on the surface of the icicle prior to freezing. (Image credit: top – M. Shturma, cross-sections – J. Ladan and S. Morris; research credit: J. Ladan and S. Morris; via APS Physics)

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