Rime Ice Freak Out!

Spiky rime ice coats berries in a parking lot at a mall in Duluth this afternoon. See how the crystals point off to the right instead of downward? There must have been a very gentle breeze from the west at the time they formed, causing them to grow in the opposite direction. Bob King

Frost forms when water in the air condenses directly from water vapor to ice and forms carpets of minute crystals that whiten our lawns in early fall. Hoarfrost forms the same way but the grains grow larger to make delicate feathers of ice. Today across parts of northern Minnesota, rime coated trees, poles and even fire hydrants in long pointy needles of ice. Rime ice forms when supercooled water droplets in the air — often suspended in a thin fog — freeze onto surfaces that are 32° F (0° C) or colder. “Supercooled water” is water that’s below the freezing point but still remains a liquid or as droplets.

In this scene you can see widespread rime coating nearly everything in sight. Bob King

I noticed haziness in the air when I stepped outside this morning, but not until I left my neighborhood and drove to a higher elevation (with a lower air temp.) did I see the transformation. Honestly, it was porcupine quills everywhere. Every edge or pointed surface sprouted long needles of the stuff. Despite their spiky appearance the crystals were very delicate and easy to crumble. While my wife shopped for fabric supplies, I wandered a mall parking lot with my phone like a kid at Disneyworld. Best parking lot ever.

Even a fire hydrant got “rimed.” It has that fashionable stubble look. At right, a close up shows how needle-like the crystals are. Bob King

For where I live, frost and even hoarfrost are common but rime is unusual. Other planets and even our moon have ice but frost? I’m sure you could find some on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus, but closer to home, Mars is your best bet. NASA’s Viking 2 lander photographed a thin covering of water-ice frost at its landing sight in Utopia Planitia on May 18, 1979. The Phoenix lander recorded frost more recently in 2008.

Frost photographed on Mars by the Viking 2 lander. NASA / JPL / Ted Stryk

Scientists think that Martian dust picks up water in the atmosphere. Then when it gets cold enough for carbon dioxide to condense into ice, it sticks to the dust and weighs it down, making it fall and coat the ground. Whether Mars has rime is unknown — maybe in some deep underground cavern, where moist air rises from some subterranean spring and dresses the cold rocks in frosty festoons.

The rime was so thick it mimicked fresh foliage! Bob King

On Earth, hoarfrost and rime rarely last beyond the morning hours, but conditions were just right to sustain the show the entire day. Winter may sting, but these needles only pricked the imagination.

You can use this visual guide to tell the three basic kinds of frost apart. Bob King

4 Responses

  1. Norman Sanker

    Hey Bob, thank you for showing us these beautiful sights–without the frostbite! Here’s a story from 30+ years ago. In those days I lived in Berkeley and biked to work. It was a rare winter morning when a delicate coating of frost had collected on some surfaces, like grass. Part of my route went past a city park with bare trees. Just as I was riding by, the Sun broke over the hills and instantly melted the fragile frost, But, in the shadows, on the green grass, were spindly portraits of the winter trees, only where the Sun hadn’t shown. It didn’t last more than a minute, and this was before the days when everyone carried a cellphone camera, but I’ll never forget it. Winter wonderland.

    1. astrobob

      That’s a wonderful word picture you paint, Norman. I can see it so clearly. Staying alert to nature’s possibilities is always rewarding.

  2. Troy

    Duluth is an amazing place, I regret that I only spent one day there when I did the Lake Superior circle tour. As I’m sure you know, Lake Superior once had a much higher water level and some of the Duluth hiking trails are artifacts from the bygone era.

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