The Fascinating Physics of Icicles: The Movie

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Sergei Karpukhin/REUTERS

In research that seemingly could have come out of a high school science fair, a team of Canadian researchers have grown icicles under different conditions in the lab to learn how their cylindrical structures form.

The research has serious implications, at least according to the New Scientist, and could help officials prevent unwanted ice build-up on power lines and airplane wings.  But we at Newsfeed like this research for its old-fashioned “gee-whiz” factor. We love it when science illuminates the mysterious in our everyday surroundings.

(See images of wacky winter weather here.)

So what did the team from the University of Toronto find out about icicles?  In short, the scientists found that pure water yielded the smoothest shapes whereas tap water created icicles with impurities.  Multiple tips were more likely to form when the refrigerator contained still air compared to when the air was circulating. According to the New Scientist, “this contradicts a recent theory on icicle formation that predicts ideal-looking icicles in calm environments.”

None of this, of course, explains why your car’s bumper grows icy fangs each winter–only how those icy fangs might look if they came from pure or impure water, or in windy or calm environments. So when your little boy or girl asks how icicles form, you can say you’re still not sure, but that Canada’s best and brightest are on the case.

(See images of ice and snow sculptures here.)