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Icicles on a tree Icicles.jpg
Icicles on a tree

An icicle is a spike of ice formed when water dripping or falling from an object freezes.

Ice water frozen into the solid state

Ice is water frozen into a solid state. Depending on the presence of impurities such as particles of soil or bubbles of air, it can appear transparent or a more or less opaque bluish-white color.

Freezing is a phase transition in which a liquid turns into a solid when its temperature is lowered below its freezing point. In contrast, solidification is a similar process where a liquid turns into a solid, not by lowering its temperature, but by increasing the pressure that it is under. Despite this technical distinction, the two processes are very similar and the two terms are often used interchangeably.


Formation and dynamics

Icicles gathered on a street sign in Eugene, Oregon Street Signs With Icicles.jpg
Icicles gathered on a street sign in Eugene, Oregon

Icicles can form during bright, sunny, but subfreezing weather, when ice or snow melted by sunlight or some other heat source (such as a poorly insulated building), refreezes as it drips off under exposed conditions. Over time continued water runoff will cause the icicle to grow. Another set of conditions is during ice storms, when rain falling in air slightly below freezing slowly accumulates as numerous small icicles hanging from twigs, leaves, wires, etc. Thirdly, icicles can form wherever water seeps out of or drips off vertical surfaces such as road cuts or cliffs. Under some conditions these can slowly form the "frozen waterfalls" favored by ice climbers

Ice climbing activity of ascending inclined ice formations

Ice climbing is the activity of ascending inclined ice formations. Usually, ice climbing refers to roped and protected climbing of features such as icefalls, frozen waterfalls, and cliffs and rock slabs covered with ice refrozen from flows of water. For the purposes of climbing, ice can be broadly divided into two spheres, alpine ice and water ice. Alpine ice is found in a mountain environment, usually requires an approach to reach, and is often climbed in an attempt to summit a mountain. Water ice is usually found on a cliff or other outcropping beneath water flows. Alpine ice is frozen precipitation whereas water ice is a frozen liquid flow of water. Most alpine ice is generally one component of a longer route and often less technical, having more in common with standard glacier travel, while water ice is selected largely for its technical challenge. Technical grade is, however, independent of ice type and both types of ice vary greatly in consistency according to weather conditions. Ice can be soft, hard, brittle or tough. Mixed climbing is ascent involving both ice climbing and rock climbing.

Icicles form on surfaces which might have a smooth and straight, or irregular shape, which in turn influences the shape of an icicle. [1] Another influence is melting water, which might flow toward the icicle in a straight line or which might flow from several directions. [2] Impurities in the water can lead to ripples on the surface of the icicles. [1]

Icicles elongate by the growth of ice as a tube into the pendant drop. The wall of this ice tube is about 0.1 mm (0.0039 in) and the width 5 mm (0.20 in). As a result of this growth process, the interior of a growing icicle is liquid water. The growth of an icicle both in length and in width can be calculated and is a complicated function of air temperature, wind speed, and the water flux into the icicle. [3] The growth rate in length typically varies with time, and can in ideal conditions be more than 1 cm (0.39 in) per minute.

Given the right conditions, icicles may also form in caves (in which case they are also known as ice stalactites ). They can also form within salty water (brine) sinking from sea ice. These so-called brinicles can actually kill sea urchins and starfish, which was observed by BBC film crews near Mount Erebus, Antarctica. [4] [5] [6]

Brine A highly concentrated solution of a salt in water

Brine is a high-concentration solution of salt in water. In different contexts, brine may refer to salt solutions ranging from about 3.5% up to about 26%. Lower levels of concentration are called by different names: fresh water, brackish water, and saline water.

A brinicle is a downward growing hollow tube of ice enclosing a plume of descending brine that is formed beneath developing sea ice.

Sea urchin class of echinoderms

Sea urchins or urchins are typically spiny, globular animals, echinoderms in the class Echinoidea. About 950 species live on the seabed, inhabiting all oceans and depth zones from the intertidal to 5,000 metres. Their tests are round and spiny, typically from 3 to 10 cm across. Sea urchins move slowly, crawling with their tube feet, and sometimes pushing themselves with their spines. They feed primarily on algae but also eat slow-moving or sessile animals. Their predators include sea otters, starfish, wolf eels, and triggerfish.

Damage and injuries caused by icicles

Icicles can pose both safety and structural dangers. [7] Icicles that hang from an object may fall and cause injury and/or damage to whoever or whatever is below them. In addition, ice deposits can be heavy. If enough icicles form on an object, such as a wire or a beam or pole, the weight of the ice can severely damage the structural integrity of the object and may cause the object to break. This can also happen with roofs, where failure can damage nearby parked vehicles or the contents and occupants of the structure. Icicles on roofs can also be associated with ice dams, which can cause water damage as the water penetrates below the shingles. [2]

Ice dam (roof) Ice dam steaming

An ice dam is an ice build-up on the eaves of sloped roofs of heated buildings that results from melting snow under a snow pack reaching the eave and freezing there. Freezing at the eave impedes the drainage of meltwater, which adds to the ice dam and causes backup of the meltwater, which may cause water leakage into the roof and consequent damage to the building and its contents if the water leaks through the roof.

The story of an English youth who was killed by a falling icicle in 1776 has been often recounted. [8] [9] [10] [11]

Large icicles that form on cliffs near highways have been known to fall and damage motor vehicles. [2]

In 2010, five people were killed and 150 injured by icicles in Saint Petersburg, Russia after a heavy snow that also caused apartment block roofs to collapse, as well as creating water damage to private homes and to the National Library of Russia. [12]

See also

Related Research Articles

Frost coating or deposit of ice that may form in humid air in cold conditions, usually overnight

Frost is a thin layer of ice on a solid surface, which forms from water vapor in an above freezing atmosphere coming in contact with a solid surface whose temperature is below freezing, and resulting in a phase change from water vapor to ice as the water vapor reaches the freezing point. In temperate climates, it most commonly appears on surfaces near the ground as fragile white crystals; in cold climates, it occurs in a greater variety of forms. The propagation of crystal formation occurs by the process of nucleation.

Hail precipitation

Hail is a form of solid precipitation. It is distinct from ice pellets, though the two are often confused. It consists of balls or irregular lumps of ice, each of which is called a hailstone. Ice pellets fall generally in cold weather while hail growth is greatly inhibited during cold surface temperatures.

Stalactite elongated mineral formation which hangs down from a cave ceiling

A stalactite is a type of formation that hangs from the ceiling of caves, hot springs, or manmade structures such as bridges and mines. Any material that is soluble, can be deposited as a colloid, or is in suspension, or is capable of being melted, may form a stalactite. Stalactites may be composed of lava, minerals, mud, peat, pitch, sand, sinter, and amberat. A stalactite is not necessarily a speleothem, though speleothems are the most common form of stalactite because of the abundance of limestone caves.

Freezing rain is the name given to rain maintained at temperatures below freezing by the ambient air mass that causes freezing on contact with surfaces. Unlike a mixture of rain and snow, ice pellets, or hail, freezing rain is made entirely of liquid droplets. The raindrops become supercooled while passing through a sub-freezing layer of air hundreds of meters above the ground, and then freeze upon impact with any surface they encounter, including the ground, trees, electrical wires, aircraft, and automobiles. The resulting ice, called glaze ice, can accumulate to a thickness of several centimeters and cover all exposed surfaces. The METAR code for freezing rain is FZRA.

A winter storm is an event in which varieties of precipitation are formed that only occur at low temperatures, such as snow or sleet, or a rainstorm where ground temperatures are low enough to allow ice to form. In temperate continental climates, these storms are not necessarily restricted to the winter season, but may occur in the late autumn and early spring as well. Very rarely, they may form in summer, though it would have to be an abnormally cold summer, such as the summer of 1816 in the Northeastern United States.

Sea ice Ice formed from frozen seawater

Sea ice arises as seawater freezes. Because ice is less dense than water, it floats on the ocean's surface. Sea ice covers about 7% of the Earth's surface and about 12% of the world's oceans. Much of the world's sea ice is enclosed within the polar ice packs in the Earth's polar regions: the Arctic ice pack of the Arctic Ocean and the Antarctic ice pack of the Southern Ocean. Polar packs undergo a significant yearly cycling in surface extent, a natural process upon which depends the Arctic ecology, including the ocean's ecosystems. Due to the action of winds, currents and temperature fluctuations, sea ice is very dynamic, leading to a wide variety of ice types and features. Sea ice may be contrasted with icebergs, which are chunks of ice shelves or glaciers that calve into the ocean. Depending on location, sea ice expanses may also incorporate icebergs.

Black ice thin coating of glazed ice on a surface

Black ice, sometimes called clear ice, is a thin coating of glaze ice on a surface, especially on roads. The ice itself is not black, but visually transparent, allowing the often black road below to be seen through it. The typically low levels of noticeable ice pellets, snow, or sleet surrounding black ice means that areas of the ice are often practically invisible to drivers or people stepping on it. There is, thus, a risk of slippage and subsequent accident due to the unexpected loss of traction.

Frazil ice A collection of loose, randomly oriented, plate or discoid ice crystals formed in supercooled turbulent water

Frazil ice is a collection of loose, randomly oriented, plate or discoid ice crystals formed in supercooled turbulent water. Its formation is common during the winter in rivers and lakes located in northern latitudes, and usually forms in open-water reaches of rivers where and when the heat exchange between the air and the water is such that the water temperature can drop below its freezing point. As a rule of thumb, such conditions may happen on cold and clear nights, when the air temperature is lower than −6 °C (21 °F). Frazil ice also forms in oceans, where it is often referred to as grease ice when floating on the surface.

Rime ice

Rime ice forms when supercooled water liquid droplets freeze onto surfaces. Meteorologists distinguish between three basic types of ice forming on vertical and horizontal surfaces by deposition of supercooled water droplets. There are also intermediate formations.

Waterproofing process of making an object or structure waterproof or water-resistant

Waterproofing is the process of making an object or structure waterproof or water-resistant so that it remains relatively unaffected by water or resisting the ingress of water under specified conditions. Such items may be used in wet environments or underwater to specified depths.

Ice spike ice crystal growing against gravity

An ice spike is an ice formation, often in the shape of an inverted icicle, that projects upwards from the surface of a body of frozen water. Ice spikes created by natural processes on the surface of small bodies of frozen water have been reported for many decades, although their occurrence is quite rare. A mechanism for their formation, now known as the Bally–Dorsey model, was proposed in the early 20th century but this was not tested in the laboratory for many years. In recent years a number of photographs of natural ice spikes have appeared on the Internet as well as methods of producing them artificially by freezing distilled water in domestic refrigerators or freezers. This has allowed a small number of scientists to test the hypothesis in a laboratory setting and, although the experiments appear to confirm the validity of the Bally–Dorsey model, they have raised further questions about how natural ice spikes form, and more work remains to be done before the phenomenon is fully understood. Natural ice spikes can grow into shapes other than a classic spike shape, and have been variously reported as ice candles, ice towers or ice vases as there is no standard nomenclature for these other forms. One particularly unusual form takes the shape of an inverted pyramid.

Atmospheric icing occurs when water droplets in the atmosphere freeze on objects they contact

Atmospheric icing occurs when water droplets in the atmosphere freeze on objects they contact. This can be extremely dangerous to aircraft, as the built-up ice changes the aerodynamics of the flight surfaces, which can increase the risk of a subsequent stalling of the airfoil. For this reason, ice protection systems are often considered critical components of flight, and aircraft are often deiced prior to take-off in icy environments.

Amorphous ice is an amorphous solid form of water. Common ice is a crystalline material where the molecules are regularly arranged in a hexagonal lattice whereas amorphous ice is distinguished by a lack of long-range order in its molecular arrangement. Amorphous ice is produced either by rapid cooling of liquid water or by compressing ordinary ice at low temperatures.

Freezing drizzle is drizzle that freezes on contact with the ground or an object at or near the surface. Its METAR code is FZDZ.

Ice lens formation of moisture, diffused within soil or rock, which accumulates in a localized zone

Ice lenses are bodies of ice formed when moisture, diffused within soil or rock, accumulates in a localized zone. The ice initially accumulates within small collocated pores or pre-existing crack, and, as long as the conditions remain favorable, continues to collect in the ice layer or ice lens, wedging the soil or rock apart. Ice lenses grow parallel to the surface and several centimeters to several decimeters deep in the soil or rock. Studies between 1990 and present have demonstrated that rock fracture by ice segregation is a more effective weathering process than the freeze-thaw process which older texts proposed.

Ice segregation

Ice segregation is the geological phenomenon produced by the formation of ice lenses, which induce erosion when moisture, diffused within soil or rock, accumulates in a localized zone. The ice initially accumulates within small collocated pores or pre-existing cracks, and, as long as the conditions remain favorable, continues to collect in the ice layer or ice lens, wedging the soil or rock apart. Ice lenses grow parallel to the surface and several centimeters to several decimeters deep in the soil or rock. Studies between 1990 and present have demonstrated that rock fracture by ice segregation is a more effective weathering process than the freeze-thaw process which older texts proposed.


  1. 1 2 "Why Icicles Look the Way They Do". NY Times. 16 March 2015. Retrieved 25 March 2015.
  2. 1 2 3 Ribas, Jorge (9 February 2010). "Snowmageddon Brings Icicles of Doom". Discovery News. Retrieved 19 September 2012.
  3. Makkonen, L. (1988). "A model of icicle growth". Journal of Glaciology. 34: 64–70. Bibcode:1988JGlac..34...64M. doi:10.1017/S0022143000009072.
  4. Ella Davies: 'Brinicle' ice finger of death filmed in Antarctic filmed by Hugh Miller and Doug Anderson, Frozen Planet, BBC Nature, BBC One, broadcast 23 November 2011.
  5. "The underwater icicle of death: Bizarre 'Brinicle' forms BENEATH the sea and kills everything in its path". Daily Mail Online. 24 November 2011. Retrieved 19 September 2012.
  6. Praetorius, Dean (23 November 2011). "Brinicle, Underwater Icicle, Captured Forming By Time-Lapse Camera". The Huffington Post . Retrieved 19 September 2012.
  7. CityNews.ca – Dangerous Icicles A Concern As Pieces Fall From Above Archived 4 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine .
  8. Sporting Magazine: or, Monthly Calendar of the Transactions of The Turf, The Chase, and Every Other Diversion Interesting to the Man of Pleasure, Enterprise, and Spirit, Vol. 27. London: J. Wheble. 1806. p. 95.
  9. Billing, Joanna (2003). The Hidden Places of Devon. Aldermaston, England: Travel Publishing Ltd. p. 51.
  10. Simons, Paul (17 February 1999). "Weatherwatch". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 September 2012.
  11. Streever, Bill (2009). Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places. New York: Little, Brown and Company. p. 147. In 1776, a son of the parish clerk of Bampton in Devon, England, was killed by an icicle that plummeted from the church tower and speared him. His memorial: Bless my eyes / Here he lies / In a sad pickle / Kill'd by an icicle.
  12. Osborn, Andrew (24 March 2010). "Falling icicles kill record numbers in St Petersburg". The Daily Telegraph . Retrieved 19 September 2012. Russians risk their lives each year as winter becomes spring causing melting icicles and blocks of ice to fall from roofs, often from a great height, onto defenceless pedestrians below. Regional figures show icicles kill dozens of Russians each year.