Nucleation of ice and its management in ecosystems

Felix Franks


In addition to the gas and liquid phases, water can exist in many different solid states. Some of these are the well–studied crystalline ice polymorphs and the clathrate hydrates, but at least two distinguishable amorphous solid forms have also been shown to exist. This diversity of possible condensed states implies a multiplicity of transitions, each of them presumably associated with a nucleation step. Disagreement still exists as to whether the amorphous states can be regarded as metastable phases, and whether the phenomenon of polyamorphism can be treated in terms of phase transitions. In the Earth's hydrosphere, several of the crystalline and amorphous water phases can be formed from vapour, under given conditions of temperature, pressure and supersaturation, and classical nucleation theory is believed to account reasonably well for the observed growth of condensed forms of water in the upper atmosphere.

Many terrestrial organisms are able to activate mechanisms to control the nucleation and growth of ice when exposed to sub–zero temperatures, thus enabling them to minimize the lethal effects of extreme freeze desiccation. The substances involved in these mechanisms include carbohydrates, amino acids and so–called cold–shock proteins, but the actual mechanisms of interfering with ice nucleation, although quite well documented, are as yet imperfectly understood. This is particularly true for the genetic control associated with biochemical processes that produce freeze resistance and freeze tolerance. The molecular biology of cold stress is currently a subject of intensive study.

Royal Society Login

Log in through your institution