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Why does ice form on the top of a lake?

Category: Earth Science
Published: December 5, 2013

Warm water generally gets more dense as it gets colder, and therefore sinks. This fact may lead you to believe that ice should form on the bottom of a lake first. But a funny thing happens to water as it gets even colder. Colder than 4° Celsius (39° Fahrenheit), water begins expanding and becomes less dense as it gets colder. As a result, close to freezing, colder water floats to the top and the warmer water sinks to the bottom. The density of water as a function of temperature can be seen in the plot on the right. Eventually, the coldest water, which has floated to the top of the lake in wintry conditions, freezes to form a layer of ice. Right when the water freezes to ice, the ice becomes significantly less dense than the water and continues to float on the lake's surface.

density of water as a function of temperature
Below 4° Celsius, water becomes less dense as it gets colder, causing water about to freeze to float to the top. Public Domain Image, source: Christopher S. Baird. Data source: CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics.

Ice is less dense than water because of the way it forms a hexagonal crystalline structure. Each water molecule consists of two hydrogen atoms bonded to the bottom of an oxygen atom. When ice forms, the hydrogen atoms of one water molecule form weak hydrogen bonds with the top of the oxygen atoms of two other water molecules. Lining up the water molecules in this pattern takes up more space than having them jumbled randomly together (as is the case in liquid water). And because the same mass of molecules takes up more space when frozen, ice is less dense than liquid water. For this same reason, water below 4° Celsius becomes increasingly less dense as it gets colder. Close to freezing temperatures, the molecules in the liquid water begin to line up into the space-filling hexagonal structure.

freezing water floats to the top of a lake
In the winter, temperatures in a lake get close enough to freezing that the colder water is less dense and floats to the top. Public domain image, source: Christopher S. Baird.

The textbook River and Lake Ice Engineering by George D. Ashton states, "As a lake cools from above 4° C, the surface water loses heat, becomes more dense and sinks. This process continues until all the water in the lake is at 4° C, when the density of water is at its maximum. With further cooling (and without mechanical mixing) a stable, lighter layer of water forms at the surface. As this layer cools to its freezing point, ice begins to form on the surface of the lake."

In deep lakes, water pressure may also play a role. The gravitational weight of all the water higher up in the lake presses down on the water deep in the lake. The pressure allows the water near the bottom of the lake to get cold without expanding and rising. Because of the pressure, the water at the bottom of deep lakes can become cold without freezing to ice.

Topics: density, freezing, frozen, ice, lake, lake ice, water, weather