Ice Spikes in Alabama

January 9th, 2015 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.

When it gets as cold as it has been lately (even here in Alabama), I like to find ways to take advantage of it. When I lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan 40 years ago, it was card games, beer, and snowmobiles (too often in that order).

Back in November in Alabama it was frost flowers. Today, it’s ice spikes.

Ice spikes form in bird baths and other rigid water containers when a layer of ice on the water thickens, expands, and forces water underneath to spurt up through a small hole that forms naturally in the ice. Some people have found them on their refrigerator ice cubes, although they tend to form more readily with distilled water than with tap water.

I tried my hand at making them two nights ago with the intent of getting better time lapse photography than I have found so far. I got two or three small ones to grow (video at the end of this post). But it was already 15 deg F when I started, and then 5 deg. F by morning, while a more optimum temperature is supposed to be about 20 deg. F.

Ice spikes have even been studied scientifically, at CalTech in Pasadena (yup, the Big Bang Theory nerds at it again). Their experiments were mostly in ice cube trays in a freezer.

But the more spectacular spikes I’ve found on the web have grown in large, shallow containers, mostly bird baths (the first pair below is, coincidently, from here in Huntsville 4 years ago, and the person grew them 2 nights in a row):


Note in rare cases an inverted pyramid of ice forms.

From reading some of what has been written on the physics of their formation, I think a missing ingredient is a heat source from below. Virtually all of the examples on the web have no snow on the ground, and the container almost always has a way of being kept warm from beneath. The water under the thickening ice must stay warm enough to feed the ice tube that forms, without the tube freezing shut. So, most of the instances of large ice spikes reported are from regions where the ground stays relatively warm. For example, cave temperatures here in Huntsville run around 60 deg. F, so the ground here remains quite warm through the winter.

Last night I tried again with a large tray like those found under large plant pots, sitting on a thick slab of Styrofoam, and used a three-probe quality digital thermometer to monitor temperatures. Without a heat source below, the water at the bottom of the 18” diameter shallow plastic tray rapidly approached 32 deg. F, and the surface of the water formed a uniformly thick sheet of ice. No spikes.

So, exactly how a small hole forms and is maintained as most of the ice thickens and the spike grows remains a mystery to me, although I suspect a weak heat source at the bottom is key to growing large spikes.

The small ones I grew with distilled water are on the right side of the dark bowl in the time lapse video, below. (The large bowl to the right losing water is made of bamboo…I thought it looked cool when I bought it, but it leaks). I placed a chemical-type hand warmer under each bowl:

24 Responses to “Ice Spikes in Alabama”

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  1. ossqss says:

    Would the entire surface need to freeze and lock in to the perimeter, so as to pressurize the water under it to force it upwards through its weakest point as it continued to freeze throughout?

    No matter, it is pretty cool looking. Thanks for sharing.

      • Doug.C says:


        Roy: You don’t need to “wait for the science” because it’s already here …

        When you realize that The Second Law of Thermodynamics can be used to explain the energy flows which maintain planetary core and surface temperatures, then you are left with no uncertainty that the CO2 conjecture is the greatest scientific mistake in all history.


        • Gordon Robertson says:

          “The Second Law of Thermodynamics can be used to explain the energy flows….”

          You have to be careful when you talk about energy wrt the 2nd law. The 2nd law is about heat and the 1st law about energy in general.

          Heat can be described as the average kinetic energy in atoms/molecules but that is an internal, atomic-level, interpretation better suited to statistical thermodynamics, which deals at the atomic level. In macro-level thermodynamics, the most practical, internal energies are not required in calculations.

          Calculations can be done based on the equivalence of work and heat.

          IMHO, which comes largely from reading widely on thermodynamics and from taken a course on it at university, the problem with the anthropogenic theory is confusing infrared energy with heat. Physicist Stefan Rahmstorf insists that the summation of infrared energies under the 1st law satisfies the 2nd law, and that is nonsense.

          Heat is not transferred both ways under normal conditions but that does not apply to IR. Although IR can flow from a colder body to a warmer body it lacks the intensity to raise the energy levels in atoms of warmer bodies.

          Before the 2nd law was developed by Clausius, the 1st law using IR could theoretically produce perpetual motion machines. That is essentially what is being described by one theory in anthropogenic warming in which the 1st law is used to insinuate a positive feedback leading to a tipping point.

          No such ‘true’ positive feedback exists in the atmosphere, otherwise we’d have been boiled off this planet long ago. It cannot exist because of losses.

          Clausius removed the possibility of perpetual motion in the 2nd law and at the same time rendered the anthropogenic theory null and void.

  2. John F. Hultquist says:

    Regarding distilled water: We are using well water and so have a 4-filter setup in the kitchen for drinking water. This water is very clean. Making ice cubes will frequently generate the types of spikes of this post. They are all very thin as there is a small amount of water to start with and likely the entire cube becomes solid quickly. Less clean water will get humps as the cube forms but not the spikes.
    Very interesting stuff. Thanks,

    • thanks for the input. I still don’t understand why clean water helps. For some reason rain water obviously has grown the biggest spikes.

      • Fred Harwood says:

        Rain, distilled, and boiled water release no gases upon freezing. Tap water will. Perhaps that difference helps explain any eventual answer.

      • Greg says:

        Clearly the key is for water aound the perifery of the container to freeze first. A gentle heat source from below will help keep a body of liquid as a skin of ice forms inwards from the edges.

        Test: a metal container with heat source should work less well.

        As with condensation nuclei in clouds and crystalisation in a super saturated solution, freezing will be triggered by impurities and rough surfaces. Purer water will have less possibilities to start freezing anywhere in the volume and will have enhanced freezing in contact with the rough surfaces of the container.

        Fun stuff.

  3. Massimo PORZIO says:

    Hi Dr.Spencer,
    just a question: could it be need a steady air to get the spikes?
    I mean, it seems to me that your experiment was done on a windy day because there were some leaves moving there on the grass.

    Have a nice day and an happy new year.


  4. Massimo PORZIO says:

    I wrote the above because a friend of mine a long time ago told me he that he seen something like that you can can see in these videos:

    It seems that if the water molecules don’t move the icy crystals don’t grow up. As the molecules are moved the water freezes.
    So IMHO the wind could be the culprit of your experiment failure.

    Have nice day.


  5. “Back in November in Alabama it was frost flowers. Today, it’s ice spikes.

    ‘ —- – and forces water underneath to spurt up through a small hole that forms naturally in the ice. Some people have found them on their refrigerator ice cubes, although they tend to form more readily with distilled water than with tap water.”

    – – – – – – 0 – – – – – – –

    I have been awake for a couple of days/nights thinking about your article – because – I always assume that the impossible may, after all, be possible.

    So, I am looking first, at the bit that is possible, which is formation of icicles. –

    It does, or at least it did seem reasonable that icicles would/ could be formed, at a time when air temperatures were (are) close to Zero deg. C. in other words you go to bed at night when the snow on your roof is just about melting and wake up in the morning when it is colder than was the evening before and, lo and behold the conical icicle has grown bigger. (No sci. exp. Needed)

    However I am getting “Sleep Deprived” and I need a good scientific explanation as to how 1) an “Up Side Down” icicle can form.
    2) Why have they got flat sides? They seem, from the pictures, to have flat sides and distinct corners (angles)

    Also, Yes, Yeah – I have seen “holes” in the tops and bottoms of Ice Cubes, but I have never seen/experienced a hole that goes right through an ice cube – from the top to the bottom.

    “The water underneath that is forced to spurt up through a small hole that forms naturally” in the ice must also freeze (below zero deg. C) – and the hole closes. – In other words, no Spurt

    Just after Christmas I be good and just say: “Bah humbug”

  6. Thanks for posting this, Dr. Spencer.
    I think it’s wonderful that these Ice Spikes can form. Very specially the inverted pyramid!

  7. geran says:

    Where are the “Warmists” claiming ice spikes are caused by AGW?

  8. ren says:

    The area of the strongest radiation shows the lowest pressure area above the Arctic Circle. You can see that the polar vortex is shifted. Consequently, the air can flow over America straight from Siberia over Alaska. Air flows over Europe from the Atlantic.

  9. Gunga Din says:

    Cool! (No pun intended.)
    I’d never heard of “ice spikes” before. But I’d also never heard of “frost flowers” till a year or so ago.
    Both remind me of the structures I’ve found in geodes. But those crystal structures didn’t melt.

  10. Kathy says:

    Dr. Spencer I didn’t know you spent so much time in the UP…where? Just wondering…since my family is from Calumet/Laurium/Eagle Harbor. And are you familiar w/ John Dee? and his website? We check it daily from here in B’ham half wishing we were up there to ‘play’ in all the snow.

  11. Roberto says:

    I found that I had grown one of these a couple of years ago, from rain water in the pull-around wagon. An inch tall. Still liquid in the middle when I found it, like an ice-cream cone. Never expected to see or hear of one again.

    I think the reason the sides are/were flat is following the pattern of the ice on the surface. Sometimes you can see three+ long skinny crystals on the surface that don’t completely intersect. The small triangular hole in the middle is a candidate for these. As the spike gets taller, it just preserves that shape, semi-crystalline fashion.

    • Yes Roberto, it seems logical that the sides will somehow take their shapes in accordance to the shape of the hole they spurted out of and that the water inside the “spike” was liquid (not frozen to ice) is also a reasonable observation to make. I still cannot understand how the whole “Ice Spike” thing can happen.

      It must have something to with “temperature difference” too. Warm – or just below zero deg. C underneath/below your cart and freezing cold above it. This is a curious thing and could do with investigating.
      Well, I do not know if there is any commercial value in such an investigation but it would be interesting to know exactly why “Spiking” takes place.

  12. ren says:

    Long stroke of cosmic radiation. Per about 7 days, you may receive another wave in the stratosphere, and then a sudden jump of temperature in the stratosphere.
    Solar activity decreases.

  13. David A says:

    Those are some very impressive ice spikes… I wrote an article about ice spikes last year:

    “When ice grows up,” Physics World, February 2014, p. 52.