Mar 6th 2019

Extreme Cold? Extremely Awesome — Five Cool Scientific Reactions


Human beings thrive in a very narrow temperature band — as noted by Live Science, we can live “indefinitely” in environments between 40 degrees and 95 degrees F. Both our world and the universe beyond, however, offer much broader ranges. According to Universe Today, the center of the sun is approximately 27 billion degrees, while NASA reported that scientists have almost reached what’s known as “absolute zero” — minus 460 degrees — in laboratory conditions. At that temperature, atoms simply stop moving.

Put simply, extreme temperatures aren’t great for long-term human survivability. But they do offer the opportunity for cool scientific reactions. Here’s a look at five interesting effects of extreme cold on the world around us.

Frost Flowers

(National Weather Service)

These remarkable phenomena occur when temperatures drop just below freezing — low enough to freeze water in the air but not cold enough to freeze wet soil. As flowers draw water out of the ground, the water begins to freeze and expand as it travels upward along their stems. This causes stems to split and the water inside to instantly freeze on contact with air, and ice is then extruded in long, thin sheets which curl randomly. As noted by the National Weather Service, this curling may be caused by “unequal friction along the sides of the split” — whatever the reason, the results are spectacular.

Worth noting? Frost flowers don’t last long. If you’re searching for one, head out before dawn and look for grassy areas that are seldom disturbed.

Slurpee” Waves

While seawater in winter in typically above freezing — just slightly, at a degree or two more than the 28.8°F needed for solid salt water — noted that specific weather conditions can cause the formation of “Slurpee” waves that look just like their namesake drink moving across the ocean and crashing on the shore.

This reaction only happens during quick and brutal cold snaps. In extremely cold air, the uppermost layers of seawater begin to freeze. With no heat available from the surrounding water, these upper layers turn to ice; continual tidal movement prevents them from creating large chunks, leaving them as Slurpee-like nuggets.

Frost Quakes

Also known as cryoseisms, frost quakes are caused by sudden deep freezing of the ground. According to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, a frost quake “produces ground shaking and noises similar to an earthquake.” They occur when temperatures quickly drop from above freezing to below zero — for example, during the first “cold snaps” of the year — and when there is no snow cover to insulate the ground.

Given the relatively low amount of energy released during a frost quake, their vibrations may travel only a few hundred yards. Those close enough to the origin point, however, may be jolted awake or feel moderate ground shaking. In rare circumstances, observers have been able to locate small ground cracks in the earth after a quake. Cryoseisms have been reported in northern states such as New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine, as well as parts of Canada.

Light Pillars

Next on our list of cool scientific reactions: light pillars. As noted by Accuweather, these sparkling pillars occur when ice crystals are small enough to remain suspended in air. This can only occur when temperatures are below freezing — often minus 10 to 20 degrees F.

According to Atomospheric Optics, plate-shaped ice crystals are critical for this effect to occur, but only drift close enough to ground during very cold weather. The horizontal faces of these crystals reflect light downward, making it appear as though beams of light are descending from the sky. In fact, they are simply elongated light halos that occur halfway between observers and light sources. Artificial lights produce taller, more vibrant pillars than natural lights because their beams are multi-directional rather than parallel.

Oceans of Diamond

Last but not least? We’re heading off-planet to explore the effects of extreme cold. Specifically, the liquid-diamond oceans of Neptune and Uranus.

As noted by, diamond can be liquified at extremely high pressure (40 million times that of Earth’s sea level) and temperatures, but when temperature and pressure drop the diamond doesn’t “freeze” entirely — iceberg-like chunks appear on the surface just as they would in water. Planets like Neptune and Uranus, which both have temperatures colder than -300°F but also boast extremely high pressure, could support large oceans of liquid diamond. Right now this is best-guess speculation, but potential probe missions to the outer planets could help confirm the existence of these sure-to-be-sparkling seas.

Cold Comfort

We’re not built for extreme cold. But we can appreciate the beauty and wonder of both Earth-bound and extraterrestrial scientific reactions that occur when temperatures drop and create extreme outcomes to expand the limits of our scientific curiosity.

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