Share it! Science : Frozen Bubbles and the Science of Ice Crystals

Frozen Bubbles and the Science of Ice Crystals

winter science freezing bubbles ice crystal snowflake science

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The past few weeks have been very chilly here in New England, as they have elsewhere. We're desperately looking for a way to tamp down our spring fever. The other night when it was well below freezing we decided to go outside and freeze some bubbles. 

A bubble beginning to freeze. You can just see the fern-like frost beginning to form. ©SBF
Freezing bubbles is a simple activity with pretty awe-inspiring results. We made some bubble solution (1 Tablespoon dish soap, 1 Tablespoon corn syrup, 9 Tablespoons water) and used drinking straws as our wands. Smaller bubbles still attached to the wand work best, too big and they break or float away. (For more ideas and tips on freezing bubbles and other bubble activities, check out the links in the resources section below.)

The frozen bubble- awesome! ©RF
As our bubbles froze beautiful fern-like ice crystals form around the surface like a frosted window.       
Frost on the garage door. ©SBF
Ice crystals, the repeating pattern of ice molecules, are the basis of beautiful snowflakes and frosty windows. Window frost grows when the glass is exposed to freezing temperatures on one side and warmer, moist air on the other. The ice crystals form as the water condenses on the surface of the window. Depending on the minute scratches, dust, soap residue, etc. on the surface of the glass, you will see different crystal patterns emerge.

There are many, many different types of frozen phenomena like this. Frost-like ice can form beautiful formations in places other than frozen bubbles and on windows. "Frost flowers" or "frost ribbons" are some of my favorites and can be found in the woods or grassy areas. These are filamentous and almost hairy looking formations that occur when moisture in a water-logged piece of wood, or damp ground freezes and pushes its way to the surface. Conditions have to be just right for these beauties to form. For some great images check out Kenneth Libbrecht's Caltech website on frost, or this Decoding Science post.

We have Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley to thank for our initial observations of snowflake ice formations. He was a Vermonter devoted to sharing the beauty of snowflakes with everyone. Bentley was the first to develop a method of photographing the snow, in the 1920's, and showing that each flake was different. His work inspired many people and scientists to study snowflake ice crystals more carefully. Now there is an entire body of work on snow science and a classification system for the different types of snow crystals. Kenneth Libbrecht's website has excellent diagrams and descriptions of the different ice crystals that grow into snowflakes. This is a particularly interesting diagram of crystal formation under different conditions.

This month is proving to be a very snowy and cold one, so we might as well make the most of it. I have included many links below for activities and more information about snow and ice crystals. Do you have a favorite related activity? Share in the comment section below!

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