Carbon Dioxide Makes Ice Weaker, MIT Researchers Find

A study conducted by researchers at MIT found that increased levels of carbon dioxide cause ice to weaken and make it more likely to split and fracture, regardless of the temperature. With the increase in global temperatures and CO2, the polar ice caps could melt at a faster rate than experts previously projected.

carbon dioxide makes ice weaker

The study was published in the Journal of Physics D last week.

“If ice caps and glaciers were to continue to crack and break into pieces, their surface area that is exposed to air would be significantly increased, which could lead to accelerated melting and much reduced coverage area on the earth,” said the study’s lead author, Markus Buehler.

“The consequences of these changes remain to be explored by the experts, but they might contribute to changes of the global climate.” writes:

Buehler and his co-author, Zhao Qin, used computer simulations at the atomic level to evaluate the dynamics of ice strength in the presence of various concentrations of carbon dioxide. They found that the gas diminishes the strength of ice by interfering with the hydrogen bonds that hold together the water molecules in an ice crystal.

Specifically, at the atomic level, the carbon dioxide competes with the bonded water molecules and, at high enough concentrations, displaces them from the bonds and takes their place.

The carbon dioxide molecules start infiltrating a piece of ice at an outer edge, then slowly split it apart by migrating inward as a crack forms. In doing so, they also attract water molecules outward to the edge by forming bonds with the water molecules’ hydrogen atoms, leaving broken bonds within the crystalline structure and decreasing the ice’s strength overall.

The simulations showed that ice that has been infiltrated with carbon dioxide to the point that the gas occupies two percent of its volume is roughly 38 percent less strong.

Since glaciers typically begin to break apart with the formation of small cracks, the researchers say, this could lead to further large-scale fractures, such as the one that recently occurred in Antarctica and produced a fragment larger than New York City.

From the EPA:

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities. In 2010, CO2 accounted for about 84% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.

With an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, experts may have to revise their estimates for ice melt and sea level rise. One thing that wasn’t mentioned is that the ice caps play a crucial role on the planet.

The ice caps reflect around 80% percent of the sun’s harmful rays back into space, while only covering 7% of the earth surface. If the ice caps melt, then more of the sun’s rays would stay in the atmosphere, thus causing more global warming and sea levels to rise further.

Further testing is needed, since this was on the atomic level. Simulation is needed on a larger scale to see if the effects of the simulated model hold true to the smaller simulation.

But, if nothing changes in the simulation and in carbon emissions, then this generation may get to see first-hand the devastating effect.

Image Credit: Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, Argentina via Shutterstock

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