What Causes the Slipperiness of Ice?

During winter weather, when ice and snow cover various surfaces, they become slippery. This poses a problem for drivers, as it makes driving dangerous. However, for those who enjoy sledding, the slipperiness of ice is a desirable feature. When sledding down a hill, it is preferable for the snow to compact and turn into ice that is as slick as possible.

While it is widely accepted that ice is slippery, have you ever wondered why? After all, ice is a solid, right? Can you think of any other solids that exhibit slipperiness?

Consider a hockey player for a moment. Can you imagine trying to skate on a concrete sidewalk or a wooden floor? These surfaces are also solids, so why aren’t they slippery?

Scientists have conducted extensive research to explain the slipperiness of ice, but the exact reason remains unclear. However, they have discovered that there is a very thin layer of liquid water on the outermost surface of ice, even when it is extremely cold. For a long time, scientists believed that this thin layer of liquid water was formed due to pressure applied to the ice.

Water possesses a unique property: its solid form (ice) is less dense than its liquid form. This is the reason why ice cubes float in water. The lower density of ice allows its melting temperature to decrease under pressure.

For instance, when an ice skate glides over ice, scientists previously thought that the pressure exerted by the skate would lower the melting point of the ice. As a result, the outermost layer would melt, allowing the skate to slide on a thin sheet of water that would quickly freeze again once the skate passed over it.

However, scientists later discovered that the pressure applied by skates or shoes standing on ice was not sufficient to cause these changes. Therefore, they had to explore alternative explanations. In recent years, two other theories have been proposed to elucidate the presence of the thin liquid water layer on ice.

One theory suggests that friction is responsible for the formation of the liquid layer on ice. Friction is the force that generates heat when two objects slide against each other. If you rub your hands together, you can feel them warming up due to friction. When a skate moves across the surface of ice, the friction between the skate and the ice generates heat that melts the outermost layer of ice.

However, ice remains slippery even when standing still. In this case, there is no friction to generate heat, yet the ice is still slippery. Hence, there must be another factor at play.

The other theory proposes that ice is inherently slippery because the outermost layer never solidifies. According to this theory, the water molecules at the surface of the ice move more freely since they are at the edge and there are no molecules above them to hold them in place. Consequently, the outermost layer remains in a liquid state even at temperatures well below freezing.

Scientists have not yet reached a consensus on which theory is correct. However, it is safe to say that both theories contribute to the slipperiness of ice.

To further explore the topic, you can engage in the following activities:

1. Go ice skating with a friend or family member to observe the slipperiness of ice up close. If outdoor ice skating is not possible, consider visiting an indoor ice skating rink.

2. Conduct a simple experiment with ice cubes. Hold an ice cube with a pair of tongs and run your fingers across its surface. Notice the slippery feeling and the presence of a liquid layer. Then, rub your hands together to generate heat through friction. Hold the ice cube again and observe the outer layer melting due to the heat from your hands. These experiments illustrate the properties of ice and the natural forces discussed in today’s Wonder.

3. Consider other instances where water increases slipperiness. For example, think about a water slide. Attempting to slide down a dry water slide is not enjoyable, as the rushing water is what makes it slippery and fun. You can conduct a simple experiment by running your hand across a dry kitchen countertop to feel the friction, and then sprinkling water on the surface to observe the increased slipperiness.

Overall, these activities will help you gain a better understanding of why ice is slippery and the role of water in this phenomenon.


1. Why is ice slippery?

Ice is slippery because of a thin layer of liquid water that forms on its surface. When pressure is applied to ice, it melts slightly, creating a thin layer of water. This layer acts as a lubricant, reducing the friction between the ice and any object or surface that comes into contact with it. The molecules in this layer of water are not as tightly packed as in the solid ice, allowing objects to slide more easily. Additionally, the smooth surface of ice also contributes to its slipperiness.

2. How does the thin layer of liquid water form on ice?

The thin layer of liquid water on ice forms through a process called surface melting. When an object or surface comes into contact with ice, the pressure applied causes the temperature of the ice to rise slightly. This increase in temperature melts the outermost layer of ice, creating a thin film of liquid water. The pressure of an object sliding or walking on ice further contributes to the formation of this liquid layer, making the ice even more slippery.

3. Does the slipperiness of ice vary with temperature?

Yes, the slipperiness of ice does vary with temperature. At temperatures near the freezing point, the thin layer of liquid water on the ice surface is more pronounced, making the ice extremely slippery. However, at extremely low temperatures, such as below -40 degrees Celsius (-40 degrees Fahrenheit), the layer of liquid water is much thinner or may not form at all, resulting in less slippery ice. This is why ice surfaces in extremely cold conditions are often less slippery than those closer to the freezing point.

4. Can anything be done to reduce the slipperiness of ice?

There are measures that can be taken to reduce the slipperiness of ice. One common method is to spread substances such as sand, salt, or gravel on icy surfaces. These substances provide traction by creating friction between the surface and objects, making it less slippery to walk or drive on. Another option is to use ice cleats or traction devices on footwear, which have spikes or grips that enhance traction on icy surfaces. Additionally, clearing snow from walkways and using anti-icing agents can also help reduce the slipperiness of ice.

5. Are all types of ice equally slippery?

No, not all types of ice are equally slippery. The slipperiness of ice depends on various factors, such as its temperature, the presence of impurities, and its texture. For example, ice with a rough texture, such as frozen snow or ice with air pockets, can provide more traction and be less slippery compared to smooth ice. Additionally, ice that contains impurities or has been treated with anti-icing agents may also have different slipperiness properties.

6. Can ice ever be completely frictionless?

No, ice cannot be completely frictionless. While the thin layer of liquid water on ice reduces friction, there is still some level of friction present. The slipperiness of ice is relative to other surfaces and objects. Compared to most solid surfaces, ice is significantly more slippery due to the presence of the liquid layer. However, in terms of a completely frictionless surface, such as a perfectly polished metal, ice still has some friction. This friction allows objects to grip and slide on ice, albeit with less resistance compared to other surfaces.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *