Uses of ice

Ice as a means of cooling

Harvesting ice on Lake Saint Clair in Michigan, circa 1905.

Ice has long been valued as a means of cooling. For instance, in 400 B.C.E., Persian engineers had mastered the technique of storing ice in the middle of summer in the desert. The ice was brought in during the winters from nearby mountains in bulk amounts and stored in specially designed, naturally cooled refrigerators, called yakhchal (meaning ice storage). Each such structure was a large underground space (up to 5000 m³) that had thick walls (at least two meters at the base) made out of a special mortar called sārooj, composed of sand, clay, egg whites, lime, goat hair, and ash in specific proportions, and which was resistant to heat transfer. This mixture was thought to be completely water impenetrable. The space often had access to a Qanat, and often contained a system of windcatchers that could easily bring temperatures inside the space down to frigid levels in summer days. The ice was then used to chill treats for royalty during hot summer days.

Until recently, the Hungarian Parliament building used ice harvested in the winter from Lake Balaton for air conditioning. Icehouses were used to store ice formed in the winter to make ice available year-round, and early refrigerators were known as iceboxes because they had a block of ice in them. In many cities it was not unusual to have a regular ice delivery service during the summer. For the first half of the nineteenth century, ice harvesting had become big business in America. New Englander Frederic Tudor, who became known as the “Ice King,” worked on developing better insulation products for the long distance shipment of ice, especially to the tropics. The advent of artificial refrigeration technology has since made delivery of ice obsolete.

Sports on ice

Ice surfing on the Żnin Small Lake.

Ice also plays a role in winter recreation, in many sports such as ice skating, tour skating, ice hockey, ice fishing, ice climbing, curling and sled racing on bobsled, luge and skeleton. A sort of sailboat on blades gives rise to iceboating.

The human quest for excitement has even led to ice racing, where drivers must speed on lake ice while also controlling the skid of their vehicle (similar in some ways to dirt track racing). The sport has even been modified for ice rinks.

Traveling on ice

Beached iceberg in Arctic

When the outdoor temperature stays below freezing for extended periods, very thick layers of ice can form on lakes and other bodies of water (although places with flowing water require much colder temperatures). The ice can become thick enough to drive onto with automobiles and trucks. Doing this safely requires a thickness of at least 30 centimeters (one foot).

Other uses of ice

U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers near McMurdo Station, February 2002.
  • Engineers leveraged pack ice's formidable strength when they constructed Antarctica's first floating ice pier in 1973. Such ice piers are used during cargo operations to load and offload ships. Fleet operations personnel make the floating pier during the winter. They build upon naturally occurring frozen seawater in McMurdo Sound until the dock reaches a depth of about 22 feet. Ice piers have a lifespan of three to five years.
  • The manufacture and use of ice cubes or crushed ice is common for drinks. (The compulsive consumption of ice is called pagophagia, a type of eating disorder.)
  • Structures and ice sculptures are built out of large chunks of ice. The structures are mostly ornamental (as in the case with ice castles) and not practical for long-term habitation. Ice hotels exist on a seasonal basis in a few cold areas. Igloos are another example of a temporary structure, made primarily from blocks of packed snow.
  • Ice can be used to start a fire by carving it into a lens that will focus sunlight onto kindling. If one waits long enough, a fire will start.

Hazards of ice

Ice can also present a variety of hazards, especially for travel. For example, its formation on roads is a dangerous winter hazard. Black ice is very difficult to see because it lacks the expected glossy surface. Whenever there is freezing rain or snow that occurs at a temperature near the melting point, it is common for ice to build up on the windows of vehicles. Driving safely requires the removal of the ice build-up. Ice scrapers are tools designed to break the ice free and clear the windows, though removing the ice can be a long and labor-intensive process.

Far enough below the freezing point, a thin layer of ice crystals can form on the inside surface of windows. This usually happens when a vehicle has been left alone after being driven for a while, but can happen while driving if the outside temperature is low enough. Moisture from the driver's breath is the source of water for the crystals. It is troublesome to remove this form of ice, so people often open their windows slightly when the vehicle is parked in order to let the moisture dissipate, and it is now common for cars to have rear-window defrosters to combat the problem. A similar problem can happen in homes, which is one reason why many colder regions require double-pane windows for insulation.

For ships, ice presents two distinct hazards. Spray and freezing rain can produce an ice build-up on the superstructure of a vessel sufficient to make it unstable and to require the ice to be hacked off or melted with steam hoses. Also, large masses of ice floating in water (typically created when glaciers reach the sea) can be dangerous if struck by a ship when under way. These masses are called icebergs and have been responsible for the sinking of many ships - a notable example being the Titanic.

For harbors near the poles, being ice-free is an important advantage, ideally all-year round. Examples are Murmansk (Russia), Petsamo (Russia, formerly Finland) and Vardø (Norway). Harbors that are not ice-free are opened up using icebreakers.

For aircraft, ice can cause a number of dangers. As an aircraft climbs, it passes through air layers of different temperature and humidity, some of which may be conducive to ice formation. If ice forms on the wings or control surfaces, this may adversely affect the flying qualities of the aircraft. During the first non-stop flight of the Atlantic, the British aviators Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown encountered such icing conditions - heroically, Brown left the cockpit and climbed onto the wing several times to remove ice which was covering the engine air intakes of the Vickers Vimy aircraft they were flying.

A particular icing vulnerability associated with reciprocating internal combustion engines is the carburettor. As air is sucked through the carburettor into the engine the local air pressure is lowered, which causes adiabatic cooling. So, in humid close-to-freezing conditions, the carburettor will be colder and tend to ice up. This will block the supply of air to the engine, and cause it to fail. Modern aircraft reciprocating engines are provided with carburettor air intake heaters for this reason. Jet engines do not experience the problem.


  • February 2007 in Virginia; ice covered trees

  • Ice Encased Trees and Bushes in Winter

  • Ice Coated Bush in Winter

  • Row of Icicles

  • A natural, 4 metric ton, block of ice on a beach in Iceland

  • Ice pier during 1983 cargo operations. McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

  • A glass of iced water.

  • Ice on a fence, frozen during winter.

  • Icicles forming on a cabin's roof at Dinner Plain Australia.

  • Icicles at Big White Ski Resort, Canada.

  • An ancient ice house (yakhchal) in Kerman, Iran, built during the Middle Ages for storing harvested ice.

  • Icicles formed at all angles by water splashes and wind-blown spray. A hillside, Harlech, Wales

  • Pancake ice formed by alternating above/below freezing temperatures and wave action at the mouth of the Winooski river, Burlington, Vermont

  • Half-melted block of ice from a New Zealand glacier, note the honeycomb-like structure

  • Ice crystals

  • Weird strings of ice found in the Adirondack Region of New York State

  • Ground ice strings close up

See also

Feather ice on the plateau near Alta, Norway. The crystals form at temperatures below −30°C (i.e. −22°F).Parameter to measure the size of a sea ice floe.


  1. ↑ H. Iglev, M. Schmeisser, K. Simeonidis, A. Thaller and A. Laubereau. 2006. Ultrafast superheating and melting of bulk ice. Nature 439: 183-186. Retrieved November 10, 2007.
  2. ↑ Kenneth Chang. 2006. Explaining Ice: The Answers Are Slippery. New York Times: Science Retrieved November 10, 2007.
  3. ↑ Water has several triple points, as noted in the article Water.
  4. ↑ Kenneth Chang. 2004. Astronomers Contemplate Icy Volcanoes in Far Places. New York Times: Science December 9, 2004. Retrieved November 10, 2007.


  • Gosnell, Mariana. 2005. Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance. New York: Knopf. ISBN 0679426086.
  • Imbrie, John, and Katherine Palmer Imbrie. 2005. Ice Ages: Solving the Mystery. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674440757.
  • Kuhs, Werner F. 2007. Physics and Chemistry of Ice. Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on the Physics and Chemistry of Ice. Cambridge, UK: Royal Society of Chemistry. ISBN 9780854043507.
  • Macdougall, Doug. 2004. Frozen Earth: The Once and Future Story of Ice Ages. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520248244.
  • Petrenko, Victor F., and Robert W. Whitworth. 2002. Physics of Ice. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198518943.
  • Prudden, T. Mitchell. 2007. Drinking-Water and Ice Supplies and Their Relations to Health and Disease. Fork Press. ISBN 9781406784374.
  • Thomas, David N., and Gerhard Dieckmann. 2003. Sea Ice: An Introduction to Its Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Geology. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Science. ISBN 0632058080.

External links

All links retrieved January 25, 2018.

  • Kenneth G. Libbrecht, Caltech Physical Properties of Ice.
  • Webmineral listing for Ice.
  • listing and location data for Ice.
  • Dave Touretzky The physics of ice.
  • Joe Wolfe 'Unfreezable' water, 'bound water' and water of hydration. Department of Physics, University of New South Wales.
  • Electromechanical properties of ice.
  • Nir J. Shaviv Standing on ice - When is it possible? . Science Bits
  • Sandia's Z machine creates ice in nanoseconds. Source: Sandia National Laboratories.