As an enormous arctic chill plunges the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes into the minus-20s or colder, most folks will be hunkering down inside next to the fireplace. But for anyone a bit more daring, the staggeringly low temperatures will turn the atmosphere into a natural laboratory. Here’s what can happen.
Turn boiling water to snow
We’ve all seen it on the Internet, but now you can try it for yourself. At frigid temperatures, emptying a kettle of boiling water into the air will produce a trail of snow and ice crystals — not a drop of water will hit the ground.
How does this happen? There are two effects that contribute to a boiling blizzard.
Boiling water emits steam very rapidly. Before the water has time to form drops that would hit the ground, most of it has turned to steam and very little droplets. For those minuscule drops, the time needed to freeze is far less — making for a quick-hitting sudden snowfall.
Second, and more important, the air can hold less water vapor when it’s cold. At minus-20 or minus-30, next to none. So the air rids itself of water vapor — a gas — as quickly as possible. When you toss boiling water/steam into the air, it overwhelms the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb it. With the air supersaturated, ice crystallization is the result and you get your own handmade snowstorm.
Usually, minus-25 or minus-30 is the cutoff for when this works best, but the threshold isn’t so dramatic in extremely dry air masses. Spots that drop below minus-18 should be fine to try from a second-floor balcony (being higher up offers the water more time in the air), and minus-23 or minus-24 closer to the ground.
But if you’re aiming to test this yourself, we urge you — use caution. During a cold snap in 2014, at least 50 people were scalded attempting this experiment.
Freeze soap bubbles
With ample surface area and a very thin layer of glycerin glaze, soap bubbles are the perfect medium to watch ice crystallization take place in real time. When the temperature drops below zero, a bubble can sometimes freeze before it pops. You have to have the right recipe for your bubble mixture and an adequate bubble-blowing technique, but many photographers have taken advantage of this artsy opportunity.
In many areas, blustery winds will add an extra challenge — beyond conjuring up the motivation to venture outdoors into the ambient icebox. Winds could gust to 30 mph Tuesday night in Minneapolis, yielding wind chills of minus-50 or below. But the bone-chilling breeze should subside Wednesday as the arctic high parks itself overhead, making it easier to create frozen ornaments.
Shrink a balloon
When the weather is super chilly, trapped pockets of air expand or contract. And it’s possible to visualize this too! All you need is a balloon.
When a gas heats up, its volume grows as the molecules become more energetic. The same is true in reverse: Cooling the balloon will cause it to shrink in volume as the molecules begin to settle down.
You can test this principle yourself by taking a balloon for a walk. Fill it indoors, making careful note of its dimensions with a ruler. If you wait outside for a few moments, the balloon will diminish in size. If you do the opposite and start outdoors, the balloon may expand enough upon walking inside that it pops! That contraction of gas is also why we have to fill our tires with more air in the wintertime.
An easier way to try this could be to use two empty glass bottles. Take one outdoors and put a balloon on top. When you transport it inside, the gas in the bottle will expand, inflating the balloon. Now take the other glass bottle, affix the second balloon to it inside, where it’s warm, and bring it outside. The air will contract so much that the balloon will be sucked into the bottle.
Make beer slushies
Yes, this is scientific. And yes, you can make a beer slushy of your very own.
Temperatures this low don’t necessarily mean instant freezing. Freezing requires the aggregation of ice crystals, but crystals need something to freeze onto — a nucleus. Otherwise, they can’t freeze.
The alcohol in beer lowers its freezing point. That’s why beer stored at 32 degrees won’t ice up. Most beers with 10 percent alcohol content freeze at 20 degrees or so. But it takes a while, and you could end up with a beverage frozen solid.
With temperatures in the minus-20s, however, you can make your slushy, start to finish, in less than an hour. You want the beer to be supercooled — liquid, but below its freezing temperature. If a beer is clear enough (dark beers don’t work well for this), it will remain in a liquid state, as it doesn’t have enough impurities in it to seed ice crystallization.
But when you come indoors and open the bottle, the rush of tiny carbon dioxide bubbles will kick-start this process inside-out. Lowering the air pressure within the bottle speeds it up further. You can watch as your beer transforms into slushy before your eyes!