6 of the Strangest Natural Phenomena Caused by Ice

December 10, 2015 | Joanne Kennell

A photograph of a man's feet standing on a crystal clear frozen lake. The rocks are visible below.
Photo credit: Screen capture from video by Thomas N

From crystal clear lakes to ice volcanoes.

If you think all winter weather is just grey and dreary, think again.  It can actually be quite stunning and unique.  Although it may make it cold outside, winter has a lot of offer us — from crystal clear lakes to ice volcanoes.  Take a look at some of these strange phenomena.

Frost Flowers

Ice flowers. fine tendrils of ice, several inches long, sprouting from dead leaves on the ground.
Photo credit: US Department of Agriculture/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

You may have heard of frost flowers before — they go by several names including ice flowers, rabbit ice and rabbit frost.  They are quite beautiful if you are lucky enough to see one, but they do not last very long, and are usually only spotted early in the morning.  They form in the winter, and are the result of an interaction between the air and plants on the ground.  When air reaches freezing temperatures but the ground is still not frozen, the sap inside of plants expands as it freezes, causing cracks in plant stems.  These cracks release water that can form intricate patterns of ice when it meets the freezing air.

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Ice Volcanoes

Ice volcanoes. Circles of ice, erupting from a frozen lake.
Photo credit: jonnyfixedgear/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Ice volcanoes (or cryovolcanoes) do exactly what you think they should — they spew water, sleet (a mix of water and snow), and tiny pieces of ice high into the air.  They tend to form along the shorelines of the Great Lakes in North America, and they look like regular snowbanks until you get up close.  Ice volcanoes are actually hardened, hollow cones of ice and snow that erupt with water and ice when waves crash against the shore.  To form, the ground-level temperatures need to be slightly below freezing, and there needs to be winds that are strong enough to create the crashing waves.

Ice Boulders



Ice boulders, also known as ice balls, have been spotted all around the world — from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and also in several regions around the Great Lakes in North America.  They are made of slush and a type of ice, known as frazil ice, that forms when loose, needle-shaped ice crystals collect in water.  If the water is calm, frazil ice forms pancake shapes, however, if in turbulent water, they get rolled into spheres.  Waves and winds tend to bring these boulders to the shore, and sometimes lines of them can be see in the middle of the Great Lakes.  They can even freeze together in large sheets if the air and water are cold enough.

Hoar Frost

Hoar Frost
Photo credit: Daniel Schwen/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Do you remember waking up some winter mornings and seeing white frost covering everything from flowers to giant trees?  It’s quite beautiful, and it is called hoar frost.  For this to form, there needs to be water vapor in the air, as well as a ground temperature at or below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit).  If there is a lot of moisture in the air, very intricate patterns of ice can form.

Ice Shoves

Giant, thick sheets of ice piled up on the shoreline of a lake.
Photo credit: Clean Lakes Alliance/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Ice shoves occur when free-floating lake or sea ice gets blown to shore by very strong winds.  The winds continue to push large chunks of ice onto land, creating a “traffic jam” of ice (seen in the photo).  These piles of ice can continue being pushing inward and have been known to cause damage to homes.  Ice shoves are a very common occurrence in the Great Lakes in the Spring.

Crystal Clear Lake



Under the right conditions, the surface of lake water can freeze perfectly clear.  Clear enough that you can see rocks, sand and even fish — just like glass — and it can only form under ideal conditions that include a lack of snow, and cool, calm nights.  It is a form of congelation ice — ice almost entirely free from gas bubbles, and other impurities like soil, sediment and plant matter.  This lack of impurities, along with the small size of the bubbles, makes the ice incredibly transparent.

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