Extruding Ice from Steel Fences and Pipes with Diurnal Freeze/Thaw

Dr. James R. Carter, Professor Emeritus

Geography-Geology Department

Illinois State University, Normal, IL 61790-4400


In January 2007 I was introduced to some interesting photos of ice growing from a metal fence on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.  I corresponded with Sheryl Terris about her photos and she gave me permission to use them on my web page.  In these three photos we see ribbons of ice emerging from where the top beam sits on the vertical support posts.

The sign above warns to Beware of Dog and in the photo below we see the legs of one of those dogs.  We also see the size of this ribbon in inches.  Note one inch is 2.54 centimeters.  In this photo we see striations along the length of the ribbon of ice, reflecting the width of the opening through which the ice was extruded. 

These three photos show the junctions of the vertical steel support beams with the overlying larger beam.  Again, the striations reflect the nature of the opening through which the ice was forced. 

The two photos below are quite special.  The many overlapping folds of ice on the left are quite exotic and certainly very attractive.  Interestingly, two years later I received another photo from Sheryl showing a similar display of overlapping folds, presumably from the same place on the fence.  As I have demonstrated with my steel pipes, below, a similar formation of ice can be produced on separate days from the same opening.  And, note that a similar display of overlapping folds of ice occurred in an ice flower in my yard on a stem of Verbesina virginica

The extrusion of two rods of ice from a small hole in the base of the steel fence above is quite exotic.  I think the block of ice in the background is from left-over snow.  How did these rods of ice form?  On another page I show examples of rods of ice extruded from posts in England and Russia. 


My Attempts to Grow Ice to Explain Many Things

I was not able to find any ice on plant stems in the fall and winter 2006-2007 season, although I looked many places.  But, I did take on the challenge of trying to explain how ice forms on plant stems.  I put water in cans and bottles, experimented with plastic straws and tubes, played with dried plant stems, and tried everything I could think of.  In the process I spent much time in freezing temperatures and in the end proved nothing.  But, I did gain some insight into the nature of the freezing and thawing of water. 

Then in January 2007 I was introduced to these photos of ice being extruded from the fence.  This gave me another challenge and I started trying to grow and extrude ice similar to what I thought I saw in the photos.  The photos below show some of my early results.  I had some large plastic pipes and I stated with those.  I put caps on them and drilled holes into them.  Ultimately, expanding ice cracked all of the plastic pipes.  The photo on the left shows that in a large plastic pipe with no cap on the top the ice did rise in the pipe as the water froze.  When it was capped on the top, water spilled over the sides until the ice at the top froze.  Then the pipe cracked, as shown in the middle photo.  To the right I show the core of a plastic pipe after it shattered due to the expansion of the ice.  I had never thought about it, but of course the ice freezes from the outside in.  In this example we can see the hollow core in the center which was filled with the water that had not yet frozen. 

In the center photo above is an iron pipe with a 45 degree angle piece on the top.  The internal dimension of the iron pipe is 0.5 inch (1.27 cm) in diameter.  The opening of the angle piece is only 0.375 (0.96 cm) in diameter.  You can see that a little ice has been extruded from the angle piece.  This was my first success at extruding ice for the ice in the larger pipe had to make a turn and then pass through a smaller hole.  However, it was not long before the iron pipe cracked. 

I then turned to black steel pipes and had more success.  I did many experiments with the angled pieces and then started flattening the ends of the pipe.  The two examples below come from pipes 0.5 inch (1.27 cm) in diameter and 36 inches (90 cm) long.

The pattern of the two spirals of ice extruded from the single pipe (above, right) occurred a few times.  The photo below shows two perspectives of that pattern.  The Blue background was a piece of cloth on the ground.  It is hard to focus the camera on thin pieces of ice without a background close to the ice.

But, all good things come to an end.  One day the opening at the end of the pipe was expanded and I could no longer produce this pattern of ice.  Below are three examples of other displays of ice that emerged from various pipes.  I flattened the ends of pipes and I drilled holes in pipes.  In doing this I saw how the ice was extruded from that fence in Canada. 

     My process for extruding ice from steel pipes with a flattened end is:

1 - flatten one end of the pipe, use a screw-on cap at the other end.  Fill the cap with something so less water will expand into the cap.  I use a commercial product called Goop. 

2 - wrap plastic around the flattened end of the pipe to make it water tight.  I use plastic, many rubber bands, and sometimes duct tape. Stand the pipe vertical with the flattened end down.

3 - fill the pipe about 1/10th full of water, then let that water freeze solid.  Meanwhile, chill water to fill the pipe but do not let that water become super-cooled.  Keep the cap cool but do not let it get below freezing.

4 - after the water at the flattened end of the pipe is frozen solid, fill the pipe full with the chilled water and screw on the cap.  If that water is too warm it may melt the ice in the pipe.  Note that if the water is super-cooled, it may freeze up while pouring and will not fill the pipe.  If the cap is too cold, water will immediately freeze on to the cap and you will not be able to screw it on.   I normally use a vise and wrench to tighten the cap.

5 - take the plastic wrap off the flattened end of the pipe and lay the pipe horizontal or stand it so that any ice extruded from the pipe will not hit other objects. 

6 - go to bed and hope it gets cold enough to extrude ice from your pipes.  Good luck.  Note that if it is cold enough, you can do this during the day.  

     The photos below show my tools and some effects on the pipes and caps. 

On the left is a short steel pipe with plastic and rubber bands sealing the flattened end.  The end space in the cap on the left has been filled with Goop.  The plastic bottle is use to chill the water to fill the pipe.  The process is described above.  In the photo cluster on the right are two iron caps that have been broken by expanding ice.  I tried a step-down junction to go from a pipe of 0.75 inch diamenter to a pipe of 0.5 inch.  The ice split that iron junction.  The top of the pipe in this photo was expanded by freezing ice.  That expansion split the pipe.  Indeed, water freezing in such pipes exerts great pressures, enough to squeeze ice out through a small opening or to rupture the pipe or the fittings. 

By the third year I migrated to 1 inch (2.54 cm) diameter pipes.  I drilled holes in some caps and cut a slot with a hacksaw in another.  That slot produced some very interesting ribbons of ice and the larger diameter of pipe produced more total ice. 

In the photo above the ice is extruded from the pipe and spirals off in opposite directions in quite symetrical ribbons.  By contrast, in the photo below we see that the ice emerged from the pipe as a single ribbon and only later split into two ribbons.  In this later case, the two strands do not produce similar shapes of ribbons.   

Note that the photo above was taken in bright sunlight with a snowy background while the photo below is quite gray, reflecting the lack of direct beam sunlight. 

After extruding many rods and ribbons of ice from steel pipes I think I know how the ice was extruded from the steel fence in British Columbia.  While I produced my ice in one night, the processes leading to the extrusion of ice from the steel fence took place over a couple of days.  It is a product of the diurnal freeze/thaw process, consistent with this series of pages. 

Somehow water gets into the pipes of that steel fence.  On the first night the water in the fence freezes, but it does not freeze solid.  Then the next day some of the ice melts.  The ice that remains in the fence floats to the top of the water.  Then that night the temperature falls and ice forms again.  This time the expanding water forces some of that ice that did not melt the day before to be pushed out of any holes where the two pipes are welded together.  The results are the ribbons of ice captured by Sheryl.

It is likely that on some nights the freezing water expands and pushs water out of these openings in the fence.  But, because that water or slush is not attractive, nor permanent, it does not get attention.  So, we have to base any interpretation on the photos taken when attractive ice formations get our attention. 

I do recognize that on Vancouver Island on the west coast of North America, the daily range of temperature is normally less than it is in my continental location in central Illinois.  This may have some influence on the nature of the ice.  It is my impression that the colder the temperatures the more brittle the ice. 

So, here is another example of some exotic forms of ice that are produced with diurnal or daily freeze/thaw processes.  Check out the rods of ice from posts in England and Russia.

Thank goodness for the Internet and digital cameras for they let us exchange information about these attractive ice formations.  Please take on the task of looking for ice when the freeze/thaw processes are underway.  Feel free to contact me at  jrcarter@ilstu.edu   if you see any ice of this nature in your outings, be there early morning or later in the day.

Return to the master page of Diurnal Freeze/Thaw Ice Formations

One of the many web pages of Dr. Jim Carter

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