Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Ice Spikes and Glacier Warming?

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Ice Spikes and Glacier Warming?

Article excerpt

Tiny lab versions of 3.7 m snow spikes that form naturally on some high mountain glaciers may someday help scientists mitigate the effects of global warming in the Andes, according to a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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Physics assistant professor Meredith Betterton says the spikes, known as penitentes (see image), are shaped when concentrated rays of sunlight evaporate snow from low spots on glacier fields in a process known as sublimation. The lab studies confirm the low spots, or troughs, deepen as intense sunlight strikes them, sculpting penitentes by the hundreds of thousands on some glaciers, notes Betterton.

Betterton's research team sprouted miniature penitentes in the lab to better understand the physics behind their formation. The researchers put a block of snow in a horizontal freezer filled with water vapor and chilled with liquid nitrogen, covered it with a clear Plexiglas lid, and shined a spotlight on the snow to simulate sunlight. Tiny snow spikes up to 5 cm high formed within a few hours, apparently by the same process through which penitentes form naturally on alpine glaciers, according to Betterton. …

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