Worldbuilding: Of Ice and Fire

AKA “It’s ice, Jim, but not as we know it.”

Water is one of the weirdest molecules in the galaxy. H2O disassociates relatively easily, so in many cases it’s more a cloud of loosely associated hydroxide and hydrogen ions than a bunch of complete molecules.

Which leads to its other interesting properties. It’s a near-universal solvent, for one; almost everything that exists on Earth will dissolve in water, given enough time. Its state changes make other molecules stare; the various ionic bonds in any body of water keeping it liquid when most other molecules that size would be a gas, and still liquid at temps that freeze metals solid. On top of that, under Earthlike conditions, it’s most dense as water a few degrees above freezing, not as ice. Ice floats. These three properties – solvent, broad liquid phase, and ice floating instead of freezing water from the bottom up – are critical to life as we know it. I’m not going to rule out the possibility of alien life not based on water (after all, alien), but based on everything we know about physics and chemistry to date, it seems highly unlikely.

Water is so very, very unusual a molecule that we keep studying it, trying to figure out if we really know what we think we know about it. For example, theoretically, ice shouldn’t be as rigid as it demonstrably is. Perfect ice should be able to bend; 15% elastic strain, says theory. Only in RL we see it shatter at less than 0.3%, because real ice has imperfections everywhere.

Okay, said some scientists at Zhejiang U. What if we grew some ice without imperfections?

The experiments took water vapor, electric fields, an ultracold chamber, and temps down to 150 degrees C. Do not try this at home. But they got a microfiber of ice, and they bent it. Into an arc. Almost a circle. Estimated elastic strain, about 10.9%.

Bendy ice. The image makes my brain go, “…Nope.” But the idea that ice can bend, if it’s pure enough… wouldn’t that make for some interesting fantastic fiction? The researchers involved are talking about low-temp sensors made of ice. In a fantasy world, an iced-over lake wouldn’t have to melt to be a death trap. It could be like walking on rubber….

And if you want something even weirder, in 2019 scientists confirmed that under enough pressure, you can make ice that’s thousands of degrees hot.

(They call it Ice XVIII. I see SF book titles now.)

They speculate that this may be why Neptune and Uranus have such weird magnetic fields – that they have a mantle of solid hot superionic ice, which is highly conductive, and not the ocean of water and ammonia previously theorized.

Any way you slice it, if your fantastic characters are going to be working with ice, check out its crazy RL properties.

You may find something really cool.

20 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Of Ice and Fire

  1. ..I now have Star Trekkin’ stuck on my head on endless repeat, and I blame you XD

    But yeah, water is SUCH A WEIRD MOLECULE and it just amazing as a result. I have had so much fun researching it over the years as a researcher (and also playing around with hydrokinetics ^^)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think it’s more a case of being Under Pressure (Queen&Bowie, or Billy Joel?). (rimshot)

      Less exotic, but still hydrodynamic, the YouTube channel Practical Engineering does a lot of videos on water from a civil-engineering viewpoint. Short, and with good visual aids. If you wanted to know *why* sewers *have* to have a certain minimum “downhill” slant, or just how water goes about undermining roads. Or how “water hammer” works, or how to generate industrial-pressure air using waterfalls when the technology to create air compressors is still a hundred years into the future….
      (Also has a good one explaining the 2021 collapse of the Texas energy grid, with *zero* political content, just engineering)

      Then there’s Steve Mould, who has some interesting videos about Heron’s Fountain and Pythagoras’ Syphon, which ends up explaining just how flush toilets work barely any moving parts (aside from water). And also explains how the ancient Greeks and Romans were able to pull off some downright amazing examples of powered equipment without high-pressure pumping technology.

      …wait, I was planning to make a point here. Oh, yes!
      Water isn’t just the root of biological life, it’s arguably the lifeblood of industry — the most widely used “working fluid” of all across all industries.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. The things you don’t know… I now have this mental image of a mad scientist type getting really enthusiastic about their work when somebody else interrupts.

    SE: Wait, you study water? How does that work?
    MS: *grins*

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I was probably in Highschool (almost 50 now), when I happened to read a sci-fi short that used the density differences and formation conditions of different water ice phases in an Analog magazine. I recall the premise was that an intelligent species of submarine life on Europa had created a kind of deep-sea water ice-floated (cargo?) dirigible to travel over long distances, especially over something like an abyssal plain or trench, where currents, oxygen levels, temperatures, and/or pressures, were inimical to (that kind of) life. What that the intrepid explorer/adventurer didn’t know, was that their craft could/would enter a region where the ice that was forming was of a denser phase, and thus would start to sink…

    That story was the first time I’d ever heard of something as bizarre as different ice phases, but I recall other short stories involving imagined life on (also conciousness transfer into “alien” bodies as colonization, like used in Cameron’s Avatar) on (cold?) gas giants like Neptune (with a solid surface), where it was posited that ice would be as hard as iron, and could be used in simple tools by “natives” or “colonists”.

    The structure of Snowflakes are amazing, as are the properties of water surface tension. The sheer power ice exhibits as wind and/current driven -bergs, spray, and masses of floes (shore front homes on the Great Lakes buried under winddriven ice, bridges breaking…), worming into the smallest cracks and causing fractures in the hardest stone, or just breaking pipes and containers…

    Some data suggests that water could seem to have a “memory”, or capability to store information, aside from the beliefs of the practice/practioners of Homeopathy…

    Liked by 2 people

      1. And perhaps potential for sudden large scale natural disasters/catastrophes, if a submarine earthquake and/or landslide, or some other disturbance (deliberate? Magic, supernatural, or mundane) causes a large-scale/massive destabilization.

        I don’t know how much water a gas release from a large scale clathrate deposit might displace in comparison to what a submarine landslide or earthquake might shift, but more insidious less obvious would probably be the change in density/buoyancy for any ships passing through the area…

        Things tend not float in bubbling, foaming water…

        Interesting historically, and as a another basis for fictional/fantasy stories of sunken/destroyed civilizations/city-states, is the fate of the drowned region of the North Sea-floor, the lost ice-age region of “Doggerland”, that once connected mainland Europe to England.

        While the sea level rise at the end of the last ice age steadily encroached on Doggerland, it now seems clear that a massive submarine landslide off the coast of Norway wiped it, and much of the coastal communities of England and the European North Sea coast off the map. Literally.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Ooohoohoooh. Doggerland getting destroyed by a massive tsunami/landslide — okay, that would explain the legendary speed of the destruction of the Drowned Cantrefs, which of course could hardly have been based on memory (unless a DANG GOOD song was involved), but does seem to have been based on visible underwater features.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I believe it may actually have been researchers investigating old ice age settlements on the north-to-eastern shores of the British Isles finding evidence of a tsunami that sort of made paleontologists take a another look at land elevation and contours, ice age ocean levels, and discovered evidence of a rather sudden, dramatic shift in the landscape. Instead of a more prosaic gradual climate-driven process…

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Or J Harlen Bretz’s struggle to get his theory of the features of Washington’s “Channeled Scablands” being caused by massive, catastrophic floods accepted.

        Until Joseph T Pardee came along, years later, trying to figure out the context of the terrain features in Montana and Idaho, that hinted at the repeated existence and demise of Glacial Lake Missoula.

        For Bretz, the question was pretty much, okay, giant floods? Where did the water come from, and for Pardee, giant damned lake, where did it go?

        Liked by 2 people

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