Why Does Ice Stay at the Top of Oceans Instead of Sinking to the Bottom?

February 15, 2024

Most cold things shrink without changing their mass, so they become denser (because they occupy less space with the same mass). That's why air sinks when it gets cold – it has to take up more space to have the same density as warmer air. Ice, on the other hand, stays the same size when it freezes. This means it has a lower density than water, and therefore floats.

The main reason ice stays at the top of oceans instead of sinking to the bottom is because it is less dense than water. But why is that? The answer lies in ice's structure. When water turns to ice, its molecules are locked into place, and can't move as easily or form as many hydrogen bonds with other water molecules. This results in ice water molecules not being as close together, and thus having a lower density than liquid water.

Another reason ice floats is because it forms a layer that insulates the water beneath. This prevents the warm water from escaping into space, and keeps it at the same temperature as the ice.

Interestingly, most things get denser in their solid state, but water doesn't. This is because it has a unique quality that makes it more dense above 4 degrees Celsius, but less dense below this temperature.

It is important to note that ice extent and ice area are different measurements. NSIDC reports ice extent, while other organizations may report ice area. Generally speaking, an area measurement will have more details about the shape and distribution of the ice than an extent measurement.


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