Archive for June, 2011

Ice is a very common solid here on Earth yet one of the most puzzling. Take the seemingly simple question, “Why is ice slippery?”, for example. Common wisdom says that when you step on an icy surface the pressure melts the ice a little bit to create a thin layer of water that acts as a lubricant. It’s due to the unique property of water: the solid form is less dense than the liquid form. We take it for granted that an ice cube will float in a glass of water, but for most material the solid form would sink to the bottom. And because ice has a lower density it is also true that the melting point of ice is depressed as pressure increases.

Ice has a hexagonal crystal structure, but what happens at the surface boundary to make ice slippery?

The theory goes that as you walk on ice the increase in pressure lowers the melting point of the top layer of the ice and it melts for a brief moment, then refreezes as you pass by. The problem with this explanation is that the effect is very small and would only reduce the melting point by a few hundredths of a degree at most. Yet ice is still slippery when its temperature is far below the melting point.

One possible explanation is that friction plays a part as well. The act of walking on ice creates friction which heats the ice to create a slippery surface. But the problem with this is that ice is still slippery regardless of whether or not you are moving. If you are standing still there is no friction, yet it’s still slippery.

A better theory is that ice has an intrinsic liquid layer. Water molecules at the surface remain unfrozen because there are no molecules above them to hold them in place. This was first proposed in 1859 by Michael Faraday who noticed that two ice cubes will fuse together if they are pressed against one another. Faraday’s explanation for this is that the liquid layers freeze when they are no longer at the surface. But even this theory is not quite correct.

In 1996, a team led by Gabor Somorjai, a professor of chemistry at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, bombarded the surface of ice with electrons. By observing how they bounced off they were able to make an amazing discovery: What actually makes the surface of ice slippery are rapidly vibrating water molecules. These “liquid-like” water molecules do not move from side to side—only up and down. This is an important distinction. If the atoms moved from side to side, the layer would actually become liquid, which is what happens when the temperature rises above 0° C. It turns out that it is this “liquid-like” layer that makes ice slippery.

1) True or false: Ice floats in water because it is more dense.

2) The best theory to explain why ice is slippery relies on _________.
a) friction b) pressure c) a liquid-like surface layer d) all of the above

3) True or false: An increase in pressure will reduce the melting point of ice.

4) Michael Faraday first demonstrated that ice has an intrinsic ____________.
a) liquid layer b) hexagonal structure c) chemical makeup d) cubic structure

5) Research at Berkeley reveals that ice has a surface layer that is _________.


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Delicate Arch, the most famous of the over 2,000 arches in the park.

Arches National Park contains more than 2,000 natural stone arches—the greatest concentration in the world. But this pales in comparison to the grandeur of the landscape—contrasting colors, textures and landforms unlike anything else on the planet.

Located above the Colorado River in southern Utah’s high desert, the park is part of an extended area of canyon country, sculpted by millions of years of weathering and erosion. 300 million years ago, inland seas covered the region. The seas filled and evaporated—29 times in all—leaving behind salt beds up to about 4,000 m thick in places which is known as the “Paradox Formation” today. Later, sand and material carried down by streams from the surrounding uplands buried the salt beds beneath thick layers which later became cemented into rock. Most of the formations at Arches are made of this red Entrada sandstone and tan Navajo sandstone that was deposited 150 million years ago.

The salt beds, under tremendous pressure from the weight of the overlying sandstone, became unstable and began to flow. This movement caused the overlying rock to move and buckle. Some sections were thrusted upward into domes, while other sections dropped into the surrounding cavities. Vertical cracks developed which would later contribute to the creation of arches.

As the movement of salt deep underground shaped the surface, erosion carried away the younger layers of rock. Water seeped into the rock through cracks and washed away loose material and eroded weaker portions of the sandstone, leaving a series of free-standing vertical fins. Ice formed during colder periods would expand and put pressure on the rock, breaking off chunks and created openings. Many of the fins collapsed, but some that were harder and more resistant to the erosion survived to become the spectacular stone sculptures that we see today.

Landscape Arch, the longest arch in the park and the second-longest arch in the world.

Although the park has timeless beauty, it is not indestructible. The same powerful forces that nature harnessed to carve these extraordinary arches will eventually tear it down. Wall Arch, a photographer’s favorite that was ranked 12th in size, collapsed in August 2008. Landscape Arch, which at 88 m is the longest arch in the park and the second-longest in the world, is facing a grim future at the destructive hands of gravity and erosion. Since 1991, three slabs of sandstone have fallen from the thinnest portion of the arch and the park has had to close the trail which passes beneath it to protect visitors from its eventual demise.

1) True or false: Utah was covered by inland seas 300 million years ago.

2) The characteristic red sandstone at Arches National Park is called _______.
a) Navajo sandstone b) the Paradox Formation c) Colorado Formation d) Entrada sandstone

3) True or false: Landscape Arch collapsed in August 2008

4) The free-standing vertical slabs of stone that developed as a result of erosion are called ___________.

5) The Paradox Formation is thousands of meters thick and composed of ____________.

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