Ice Unknown

It's everywhere on Earth, on the other planets and moons of the solar system, and even in comets from deep space. It is the frozen form of water, commonly called ice. Something so ubiquitous and familiar, one would think that science knows a lot about ice. It turns out science knows less than we might suppose. In a commentary in the journal Nature, an ice scientist raises ten open questions about ice. For example, the article states: “We cannot predict with certainty when and where ice clouds will form in the atmosphere; areas of the sky remain humid when we would expect them to freeze.” Ice is a fundamental part of Earth's climate, yet these questions and others remain unanswered. How can climate science claim to predict the fate of the polar ice sheets or mountain glaciers when we do not really understand the substance that they are made of?

Whether in a magnificent glacier, capping a frozen lake, or in a cool drink most of us have come in contact with ice, frozen H2O. Physically, ice has shaped our world. The massive ice sheets that wax and wane during glacial-interglacial cycles has ground mountains into dust and caused continents to rise and fall. In many parts of the world sea-levels appear to be dropping because the land, relieved of the great weight of glacial ice, is still rebounding from the last glacial maximum 20,000 years ago.

In our book about climate change, The Resilient Earth, we stated that we humans are, in fact, creatures of the Ice Age, forced to evolve rapidly by the extreme stress and changing conditions of a world griped by ice. It is almost humorous that environmentalists rail against climate change when climate is always changing, and those changes spell extinction for countless species. It is all part of the process of natural selection—only the adaptable survive.

Contrary to the beliefs of many tree-huggers and Gaia worshipers, nature is not a benign mistress. It is an unthinking, uncaring collection of physical processes and among the most powerful of those processes are the actions of ice. At the beginning of the chapter on Ice Ages in The Resilient Earth we quoted E. E. Cummings: “The snow doesn't give a soft white damn whom it touches.”


Earth in the grip of a glacial period.

Understanding the molecular behavior of frozen water is essential for predicting the future of our planet, says Thorsten Bartels-Rausch, who studies the surface chemistry of ice and snow at the Paul Scherrer Institute, Villigen, Switzerland. Naturally, a scientist who studies ice thinks it is of paramount importance. Here is how he characterizes ice's role on our planet.

Ice is central to climate, geology and life. Understanding its behaviour is essential for predicting the future of our planet and unravelling the emergence of life in the Universe1. Water ice frosts planets, moons and comets in our Solar System. On Earth, white polar ice caps reflect up to 90% of the Sun's incoming radiation. On average, 7% of the ocean's surface is frozen; sea ice alters ocean currents and limits the exchange of gases with seawater. Ice and snow coat 10% of the land permanently and up to half of the Northern Hemisphere in midwinter. These blankets of frozen water insulate the ground and the oceans.

Ice clouds concentrate airborne chemicals and are sites for atmospheric chemistry. Above the poles, clouds of ice grains host ozone-depleting reactions, forming holes in the stratospheric ozone layer at high latitudes that expose millions of people to increased ultraviolet radiation. Chemical reactions in snow on the ground can produce ozone and other environmental pollutants. Organic toxins and mercury accumulate in snow and can be released into rivers and oceans when the snow melts, where they enter the food web.

While we obviously know a lot about the solid form of water, what is surprising is what we do not know. For example, the molecular mechanisms underlying the processes listed above remain largely unknown. “Without knowing more about how chemical reactions proceed in ice and snow, and where they occur within the grain and crystal structure, it is impossible to build snow or ice-cloud modules for atmospheric and climate models or to extrapolate laboratory studies to environmental conditions with enough confidence,” Bartels-Rausch states.

According to this one expert, there are many unanswered questions about the fundamental nature and behavior of this familiar solid. Citing recent advances in computer simulations and in experimental techniques Bartels-Rausch lists his top ten list in “Ten things we need to know about ice and snow.” Here is a condensed summary of that list:

  • How does ice form? Much about how and when water freezes is still unclear, even though this is essential for understanding Earth's climate and water cycle. We cannot predict with certainty when and where ice clouds will form in the atmosphere; areas of the sky remain humid when we would expect them to freeze.
  • How does ice structure change? As pressure and temperature vary, the water molecules adapt their arrangement to minimize energy, producing the different phases of ice. Next, we need to be able to reproduce the molecular processes in those transitions in computer simulations or quantum-chemistry calculations over the whole temperature and pressure range.
  • How do different ice structures behave? In addition to ordered crystals, ice also comes in amorphous and 'metastable' forms — molecular arrangements that are long lived but not at minimum energy. This structural variety widens the possibilities for how readily ice crystals form, the chemical reactivity of ice clouds, how impurities are captured in comets, and the mechanical strength of icy bodies in space. Yet we know little about how these ices are structured, whether they mix with crystalline ice and where they occur.
  • What is the surface structure of ice? Molecular order breaks down at crystal surfaces. We need to know the most essential things about this layer, such as its molecular structure and how that changes with temperature.
  • Where do impurities lie within ice? In the upper atmosphere and in space, water ice is often mixed with carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, sulphuric acid and nitric acid. Ice on the Earth's surface holds chemicals from sources such as sea salt, dust and pollution. But we don't know how these impurities are mixed in with the ice, or whether different types of ice, such as soft snow and compacted glaciers, hold contaminants in similar ways.
  • How do reactions proceed in ice? At the South Pole, reactions of nitrous oxides released from snow produce enough ozone to raise the local concentration to levels seen in industrial areas. In the Arctic, mercury ions deposited from the atmosphere into the snow cover are chemically converted before being released back to the air.
  • Are there pockets of liquid in ice? Brine fills the pores and channels in sea ice, and sea salt in snow and impurities along grain boundaries in glacial ice can cause local melting to form internal pools. The presence of liquid changes the fate of impurities and the phase stability of ice, but in environmental ice we do not know how much liquid is trapped or where it is held.
  • How do physical processes affect ice impurities? Chemicals from the atmosphere are absorbed rapidly by snow and creep deeper into glacial ice over centuries, altering the chemistry of air, snow and ice over time. Fluctuations in the levels of slowly diffusing pollutants, such as fluorides and methanesulphonates, complicate the dating of the environmental record from ice cores.
  • How does ice growth affect impurities? Water molecules in the surface layers of ice and snow are continually evaporating and re-freezing. During the course of a day, as temperatures cycle between warm and cold, up to 60% of the molecules can be redistributed. How do impurities respond when the shape, surface area and volume of the ice changes so drastically?
  • How long will ice last? Satellite data indicate that the Arctic perennial sea-ice cover is declining by around 10% per decade. Glacier shrinkage at the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is accelerating. Our understanding of the observations is insufficient for us to predict the rate at which snow and ice could disappear from our planet in this century.

As you can see, Dr. Bartels-Rausch's list is long and diverse, ranging from the fundamental “how does ice form” to the hypothetical “how long will ice last?” The complexity of ice's interaction with the environment and its connection to other factors involved in climate change are obvious. Our ignorance in the face of that complexity should be humbling to any who would prattle on about “settled science.” The suggested palliative? Greater interdisciplinary study and more funds for fundamental, laboratory-based experiments—what researcher doesn't think he is underfunded?

The fact remains that after more than 30 years of modeling we still cannot accurately predict cloud formation. We bemoan human air pollution while Antarctic ozone approaches industrial levels naturally. Most telling of all, our current level of knowledge is insufficient for us to predict what will happen to our planet's snow and ice cover. The article is unequivocal: “Without knowing more about how chemical reactions proceed in ice and snow, and where they occur within the grain and crystal structure, it is impossible to build snow or ice-cloud modules for atmospheric and climate models or to extrapolate laboratory studies to environmental conditions with enough confidence.”

This flies in the face of confident, even strident assertions by climate alarmists that the poles are melting and soon we will face an ice-less world. More vexing to global warming catastrophists, in late September, satellite data indicated that Antarctica was surrounded by the greatest area of sea ice ever recorded since the advent of satellites. The U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC)reported 7.51 million square miles (19.44 million square kilometers) of the frozen white stuff.


Antarctic ice just keeps on growing.

Naturally, global warming apologists say that this is not a contradiction and point to melting in the Arctic, ignoring the well known alternating melting and freezing connection between the poles. “The Antarctic has not been warming up as fast as the models thought,” states the warmist leaning National Geographic website, “it's all consistent with a warming planet.” Aside from pointing out that models do not think, consider their recent track record—ice growing where it shouldn’t, more than a decade with no global temperature increase, no increase in drought or severe storms. If they have gotten so many predictions wrong why should their predictions about global warming be given any credence? The answer is, they should not.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.