27 February 2010

Frozen soil lifts off

Posted by Callan Bentley

When I was out poking around in the woods, confirming for local geophile Barbara that indeed her local geologic map wasn’t 100% accurate, I noticed this on the frozen ground:

We have seen this before, in a post back on NOVA Geoblog, almost exactly a year before I took this photo. Here’s another shot from the more recent excursion, taken a foot or so over from the first one:


What’s happening here is not that I am showing you particularly high-contrast photos of pebbles and cobbles in the mud. Instead, the reason for the dark line around the sedimentary clasts is that the mud is frozen. When water freezes into ice, it expands in volume by about 9%. This extra volume means that the ice can’t occupy the same space that the liquid water did. So it pooches upwards, as “up” is the direction in which it is least “hemmed in.” Down? No — the expanding ice is not capable of pushing the entire Earth out of its way. North/south? or East/west? Well, there’s already soil there, and it’s pushing back, so there’s no expanding out in those (horizontal) directions. So, “up” it is. That’s all we’re left with: “up” is σ3.

If I were to draw this as a cartoon, here’s the “before” picture:


As the sheet of frozen mud expands upwards, it detaches from the non-expanding (in fact, shrinking, but not by anywhere near 9%) cobbles and pebbles. As the mud ice lifts up higher and higher, the gap between it and the clasts gets more and more pronounced.


Shadows in those gaps make them appear dark to the camera lens.

Ice pulls all kinds of neat tricks like this in the winter. What’s a cool ice phenomenon you’ve observed lately?