Needle Ice

Needle ice pushes up the top layer of soil.

Dear Naturalist,

Today, I’m curious (well, I’m always curious) about how these ice formations happen. They pop up like upside down icicles. They are beautiful.

— SS, Boone


Water never ceases to amaze me. There are so many ways that it can change from one phase to another as it moves about our planet.

Sublimation is the conversion between the solid and gaseous phases of matter with no intermediate liquid stage. In water, sublimation occurs when snow and ice transform into water vapor without first melting into water.

Evapotranspiration occurs when plants release water vapor from their leaves. It is said that a large oak tree will transpire 40,000 gallons of water per year. Later, that moisture will rain down on some other part of planet Earth.

Morning frost occurs when water vapor freezes onto a growing ice crystal — also sublimation.

Your needle ice occurs because of a special phenomenon called ice segregation. This process usually occurs when we have a sudden cold snap, before the ground has a chance to freeze, and there is liquid water in the soil.

As the water meets the colder air, it freezes. More water in the soil moves up toward the ice through capillary action, the outcome of water’s ability to stick to surfaces and itself. If conditions are just right, the ice will continue to grow and expand — pushing right up out of the ground and forming long, fragile columns of needle ice.

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