Frazil ice

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Frazil ice in Yosemite Creek
Video of frazil ice in Yosemite National Park

Frazil ice is a collection of loose, randomly oriented needle-shaped ice crystals in water. It resembles slush and has the appearance of being slightly oily when seen on the surface of water. It sporadically forms in open, turbulent, supercooled water, which means that it usually forms in rivers, lakes and oceans, on clear nights when the weather is colder, and air temperature reaches −6 °C (21 °F) or lower. Frazil ice is the first stage in the formation of sea ice.


Frazil ice flowing in the mouth of the river Blanda in Iceland

When the water surface begins to lose heat rapidly, the water becomes supercooled. Turbulence, caused by strong winds or flow from a river, will mix the supercooled water throughout its entire depth. The supercooled water will already be encouraging the formation of small ice crystals (frazil ice) and the crystals get taken to the bottom of the water body. Ice generally floats, but due to frazil ice's small size relative to current speeds, it has an ineffective buoyancy and can be carried to the bottom very easily.

Through a process called secondary nucleation, the crystals quickly increase in number, and because of its supercooled surrounding, the crystals will continue to grow. Sometimes, the concentration is estimated to reach one million ice crystals per cubic meter.

As the crystals grow in number and size, the frazil ice will begin to adhere to objects in the water, especially if the objects themselves are at a temperature below water’s freezing point. The accumulation of frazil ice often causes flooding or damage to objects such as trash racks. Since frazil ice is found below the surface of water, it is difficult to detect its formation.

Usually what happens is the frazil ice accumulates on the upstream side of objects and sticks to them. The frazil ice accumulates as more gets deposited. The growth will extend upstream and increase in width until the point where the frazil ice accumulations bridge together and block the water. As more and more water flows against this block, the pressure on the upstream side increases and causes a differential pressure (difference in pressure from the upstream side and the downstream side). This will cause the growth of the bridge to extend downstream. Once this happens, flooding and damage is likely unless otherwise prevented.

Frazil ice has also been demonstrated to form beneath temperate (or "warm-based") glaciers as water flows quickly downhill and supercools due to a rapid loss of pressure. This "glaciohydraulic supercooling" process forms an open network of platy ice crystals that can effectively trap silt from the sediment-laden water that flows beneath glaciers and ice sheets. Subsequent freezing and recrystallization can result in a layer of sediment-rich ice at the base of the glacier which, upon melting at the terminus, can result in significant accumulation of sediment in moraines. This phenomenon has been verified by elevated concentrations of tritium — produced by nuclear weapons testing and therefore almost entirely absent in ice frozen before 1945 — in the basal ice of several glaciers (signifying young ice) and the observation of rapid growth of ice crystals around water discharge vents at glacier termini.


There are several ways to control frazil ice build up. They include suppression, mechanical control, thermal control, vibration, materials selection and damage mitigation.


Frazil ice forms in supercooled water which occurs because the surface water loses heat to cooler air above. Suppression is the idea of ‘insulating’ the surface water with an intact, stable ice cover. The ice cover will prevent heat loss and warm the supercooled water that might have already formed. Sufficient area needs to be covered in order for this method to work, but it is still unknown what is meant by "sufficient".

Mechanical control[edit]

These methods include stabilizing freeze without restricting water flow, such as implementing weirs and ice booms, installing water jets to break up any accumulation that might occur, and using manual labour to rake away the accumulation. This final method is often not preferred because of high labour costs, cold, wet and late night working conditions. Back flushing is another technology that uses the idea of cancelling out the differential pressure caused by the frazil ice accumulation. This technology creates a high pressure on the downstream side of objects to reverse the differential pressure.

Thermal control[edit]

These methods either heat the structures in the water to prevent frazil ice adhesion or heat the water to prevent frazil ice from forming in the first place. When heating the structure, it must be heated to a temperature above freezing. Electrical resistance heaters have been found to work well, but these have potential safety problems. Installing hollow tubes in the structures through which steam or warm water is pumped also works, but this method has been seen to cause operational problems.[further explanation needed] Other active methods are also available. Sometimes warm water byproducts are released from nearby water facilities, and the warm water is wasted. Redirecting this water to potential frazil ice accumulation regions could raise the water temperature by 0.1–0.2 °C (0.18–0.36 °F), often enough to prevent supercooled water from developing.


Although still in the experimental stages, blasting with dynamite is one form of vibrational control that will break loose any frazil ice accumulation. The charge must be precise such that the ice breaks, but surrounding structures and environment are not harmed. Safety of the blasting also is important and nearby residents might complain about sound pollution. For all these reasons, this method is not often used, except as an emergency last resort.

Materials selection[edit]

Man-made structures are often the objects to which frazil ice adheres. As such, the choice of materials for these structures should include consideration of ice adhesion. Steel structures, for example will rust, and rust-to-ice adhesion is very strong. Choosing a material with lower adhesion such as plastic, fiberglass, graphite or even an epoxy paint coating on the steel will reduce the adhesion probability. Although adhesion will still occur, using such materials makes other methods, such as raking, easier.

Damage mitigation[edit]

Damage could be reduced by protecting designated flood regions with mechanical structures.

See also[edit]


  • Daly, Steven F. Cold Region Technical Digest No. 91-1 "Frazil Ice Blockage of Intake Trash Racks". March 1991.
  • Lawson, D. E., Strasser, J. C., Evenson, E. B., Alley, R. B., Larson, G. J., and Arcone, S. A., 1998, Glaciohydraulic supercooling: a mechanism to create stratified, debris-rich basal ice: I. Field evidence: Journal of Glaciology, v. 44, no. 148, p. 547–562.

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