Q: Could Kurt Vonnegut’s “Ice-9 catastrophe” happen?

The original question was: Is it possible to actually create a substance such as Kurt Vonnegut’s “Ice-9 (Nine)“, which could, in theory, bond with water (especially seawater) and replicate like a virus, freezing the oceans (or all liquid water on Earth) solid?


Physicist: Nope.  There actually is an ice-IX, but there’s nothing that special about it.

Crystals in general are self-propagating.  That is, once a crystal is present the raw materials in the environment find that falling into place in the crystal’s lattice results in a net drop in energy, but weirdly enough it usually takes a little energy to start a crystal from scratch.  You can see this in action with super-cooled water: the water is cold enough that it should freeze, but no collection of water molecules is able to start the ice crystal.

Super-cooled water freezing on contact with previously formed ice.

The first tiny crystal that gets the ball rolling is called a “seed crystal”.  Often it’s unnecessary because when a bunch of atoms are ready to crystallize small flaws in the environment can “look” like pieces of crystal to them, and they’ll just grab on to them (these are called “nucleation sites“).

It may seem strange to talk about a different kind of water-ice other than just regular “ice”, but keep in mind that many substances are perfectly happy to crystallize in multiple ways.  For example, sapphires and rubies are made of exactly the same stuff, aluminum oxide (“aluminium” for our not-American readers), just put together in different ways due to the different environments that they form in.

Aluminum oxide in sapphire and ruby forms.

Water in particular crystallizes in a surprising number of ways.  To date, 15 different forms of water ice have been found, however here on Earth only one kind (“ice-I”) can form naturally.  Even at the bottom of the Mariana Trench the pressure isn’t nearly high enough for any other kind of ice.

The different forms of water and ice at different pressures and temperatures. Sea-level air pressure is the horizontal red line.

A general rule of thumb is, if something wants to crystallize, and it’s in an environment where it can do so, eventually it does.  Even if there’s no seed crystal already present, at some point a nucleation point is bound to show up (given enough time) and a crystal will form and grow.

The whole idea of Vonnegut’s ice-9 is that it’s a crystalline form of water, that grows rapidly at reasonable, Earth-like pressures and temperatures.  If it could form at all, then at some time in the last several billion years, at some place in our gargantuan oceans, a tiny ice-9 crystal should have formed accidentally and encompassed the world.

We’ve already seen this on other, aptly named, ice-worlds.  For example, Europa has lots of water, and is in an environment (pressure and temperature) conducive to the formation of ordinary ice-I.  Not surprisingly, Europa long ago underwent a colossal “ice-9 type catastrophe”, in that all of its water (at least on the surface) quietly froze solid.

Long story short, if the Earth’s water could somehow be induced to crystallize at room-temperature, it almost certainly would have done so at its earliest convenience, a very long time ago.

The very cool super-cooled water gif is from here.

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4 Responses to Q: Could Kurt Vonnegut’s “Ice-9 catastrophe” happen?

  1. Weather Mod Pilot says:

    Incidentally, the inspiration for Cat’s Cradle came from cloud seeding, a technique pioneered by Vincent Schaefer, Irving Langmuir, and Bernard Vonnegut (a noted atmospheric scientist and brother of the aforementioned Kurt). Seed crystals (in the form of silver iodide) are released into the updraft of a thunderstorm by specially-equipped aircraft. These kick-start the formation of ice crystals in the cloud, leading to increased rain (because of the larger number of ice crystals to glom on to) and decreasing the amount of hail (because of the increased number of seeds, the competition for water molecules increases, and each individual seed is smaller on average, tending to become a rain drop instead of a hail stone).

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  3. Mike Mudd says:

    It is lucky the solid Ice I is lighter than the liquid otherwise a good portion of H2O would be locked up at the bottom of the oceans permanently.

  4. Waileia Hui says:

    If, like AC over DC, Nikola Tesla’s fluorescent light technology had likewise then prevailed over J.P. Morgan’s General Electric incandescent –heaters that just so happen to make light— how many mega-tons of carbon dioxide would be absent from today’s atmosphere?

    Also, thinking of concrete locking up water like Ice Nine in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”: How many tons of water are locked forever –barring asteroid-like Earth impacts and surface nuclear blasts– in the water-latticed molecules of concrete in the making of Hoover Dam? in whole federal interstate hwy system’s concrete? In the world, and how is that accelerating?
    How many lbs. of carbon dioxide released in chemical reduction process of making cement for concrete?
    http://open.salon.com/blog/anti-terrorust/2010/06/15/the_myopic_culture_of_the_automobile_concrete_and_oil

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