Is Ice Wet? (Solved with Science)

One of the most interesting questions I’ve ever heard is some variation of, “Is ice wet?” It’s time to answer the question once and for all.

Is ice wet?

Ice is wet because it forms a small quasi-liquid coating during the transition of water from ice to steam or from steam to ice. This liquid layer is considered metastable, which means it can usually exist in a state of near equilibrium with its surroundings. Dry ice, water, snow, and steam are wet.

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about, “Is ice wet?”

Is Ice Wet? (Detailed Explanation)

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Three ice cubes melting—Is Ice Wet
Image by the author via Canva—Is Ice Wet?

The water molecules on the surface of ice are constantly evaporating and condensing. In order for this to happen, the ice must be in contact with water vapor in the air.

Sometimes researchers refer to this process as “phase transition.”

When water vapor condenses on the surface of ice, it forms a wafer-thin, and not completely stable liquid layer. This liquid layer is what we refer to when we say that ice is wet.

The liquid layer on the surface of ice is actually called a quasi-liquid layer, or QLL.

According to research published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal:

This means that QLLs are a metastable transient state formed through vapor growth and sublimation of ice, casting a serious doubt on the conventional understanding presupposing the spontaneous formation of QLLs in ice–vapor equilibrium. We propose a simple but general physical model that consistently explains these aspects of surface melting and QLLs. Our model shows that a unique interfacial potential solely controls both the wetting and thermodynamic behavior of QLLs.

All that fancy language just says that ice is wet.

Is Ice Always Wet?

Ice is always wet for a number of different reasons.

At a basic level, water molecules are constantly in motion, and this results in what is known as “freezing point depression.”

Essentially, the rapid movement of water molecules within the ice causes it to remain fluid even when exposed to cold temperatures. Ice is constantly attracting and repelling water molecules, resulting in the formation of millions of microscopic water droplets on the surface of the ice.

These droplets are what give ice its wet, slippery texture 

Furthermore, as ice forms, it absorbs heat from its surroundings. This allows liquid water to enter the ice matrix, which keeps the freeze-point depressed.

Finally, any exposed or unoccupied surface area on the exterior of an ice crystal will attract more liquid particles and become saturated, making it wet. All told, these factors explain why ice is always wet – a truly fascinating phenomenon that scientists are still working to fully understand.

Is Ice Wet In Different Physical States?

Now that we know ice is constantly wet, what about the different states of ice.

I’m not talking about different physical locations.

Instead, we’re looking at the various physical states of ice:

  • Dry ice
  • Water
  • Snow
  • Steam

Is Dry Ice Wet?

Dry ice is the solid form of carbon dioxide, and it is often used to keep food cold or to create a foggy effect in special effects.

But what exactly is dry ice, and how does it differ from regular ice?

Dry ice is created by compacting and freezing carbon dioxide gas. This process creates a substance that is much colder than regular ice, and it also makes the carbon dioxide much denser.

As a result, dry ice sublimates—transfers immediately from a solid into a gas—at a much lower temperature than water.

When dry ice sublimates, it also generates a small amount of water vapor.

So while dry ice itself is not completely wet, the process of sublimation creates a very fine mist of water droplets. In other words, you could say that dry ice is sort of wet—but only in the most technical sense of the word.

Is Snow Wet?

At first glance, snow may seem like it is simply frozen water.

However, the truth is actually much more interesting. Contrary to popular belief, snow does not technically qualify as a form of precipitation.

Instead, snow consists primarily of individual ice crystals held together by small air pockets known as dendrites. Because each crystal has its own unique structure and makeup, the properties of the overall snowfall can vary widely depending on various environmental factors such as temperature and humidity levels.

From a strictly scientific standpoint, then, snow is both wet and not wet.

That’s where the term “quasi-liquid” came from, after all.

But from an everyday perspective, it seems pretty clear that yes, in fact, snow can indeed be wet. After all, just try scooping up a handful of fresh powdery flakes – you’ll see what I mean! 🙂

All joking aside though, understanding how and why snow forms is an important first step for anyone looking to better understand our planet and its dynamic weather systems.

The next time you’re out building a snowman or frolicking in the fluffy white stuff, feel free to consider it from a scientific point of view—and maybe even feel a little wiser for doing so.

Is Steam Wet?

To many people, the answer to this question might seem self-evident: Of course steam is wet!

After all, steam is simply vaporized water, and water is well-known to be very wet indeed.

However, despite its appearance, steam is not truly liquid in nature.

Rather, it falls somewhere on the spectrum between a liquid and a gas, sharing characteristics of both but still falling short of being an actual liquid.

Steam is composed of tiny droplets that float freely in the air instead of clinging together in liquid-like clusters.

Steam also contains trace amounts of other substances such as salt and carbon dioxide that give it different properties than pure water. Ultimately, whether or not steam can be considered wet comes down to a matter of semantics.

That’s right, we return to our old friend, the quasi-liquid.

While there are different types of steam, as a quasi-liquid, most scientists consider cold steam wet.

Is Water Wet?

On the most basic level, water is definitely wet.

What is wetter than water? Water is the very essence of a liquid.

But it gets more interesting when you cut into the definition of “wet.” If we think of wet as a liquid state, water certainly meets the criteria.

However, if you think of wetness as merely a description, we need to dig a little deeper.

Technically speaking, water itself is not wet (as a specific description).

Instead, what makes something wet is the interaction between water molecules and other materials such as cells and fibers.

Depending on its surrounding environment, water may or may not be able to bridge these gaps and come into contact with other surfaces.

So while you might think of raindrops as being wet when they fall from the sky, a raindrop held in isolation is not able to interact with other materials. In short, while we often consider that “water is wet,” it really depends on your definition.

Here is an entertaining video that explains a little more about the “controversial” argument that water might not be wet:

YouTube video by Chaz Smith—Is Water Wet?

Is Ice Wet in the Freezer?

When we look closely at the ice in our freezer, we can see that it actually has some degree of moisture.

For example, if we touch a frozen cube with our fingers, we will notice that there is condensation present on its surface. This is because the freezing process actually draws moisture out of the surrounding air and into the cube itself.

While ice may not be full of liquid water in its solid state, it does gradually accumulate some amount of moisture as it freezes.

And so the answer to our original question is “yes.”

Ice is wet in what we typically think of as dry conditions—the freezer.

Is Ice Cream Wet?

Ice cream falls into some unique middle ground between liquids and solids.

In order to answer this question definitively, scientists have conducted numerous experiments and attempted to weigh in on the debate from various angles. Some have argued that since fat molecules are smaller than water molecules and can interact with each other more easily, ice cream is actually a liquid.

Others have pointed out that because water can freeze into a completely solid form under certain conditions, it cannot completely be described as a liquid either.

Therefore, ice cream is semi-wet.

Can You Make Ice Wetter?

There are at least three ways to make ice wetter.

Those three ways:

  • Add water
  • Add pressure
  • Add impurities

Add Water

By adding water, you literally add wetness to wetness, which equals greater wetness.

The water molecules in the liquid are attracted to the ice molecules, and this attraction helps to keep the liquid from freezing. As a result, the liquid water actually makes the ice wetter.

Add Pressure

Depending on the amount of heat and pressure present, water molecules can arrange themselves into different structures.

The most common type of ice is called hexagonal ice. Under normal conditions, water molecules form a six-sided lattice. But if you subject ice to high pressures, it can adopt a cubic structure. In this form, the ice actually contains more water molecules than hexagonal ice.

Add Impurities

Add impurities to the water before it freezes.

This disrupts the formation of the crystalline structure and makes the ice more porous.

As a result, the ice is better able to absorb liquids, making it wetter.

Final Thoughts: Is Ice Wet?

The bottom line is that pure ice is always wet.

Ice is even wet in almost 100% of its other physical, liquid, and gaseous states.

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The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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