Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans

Surface characteristics of lead ice


  • Donald K. Perovich,

  • Jacqueline A. Richter-Menge


Under cold conditions, ice growth in a lead occurs rapidly, giving young sea ice a high bulk salinity. The surface characteristics of this ice type are dominated by a thin, highly saline surface skim and often by the formation of frost flowers. These surface characteristics are of particular interest because of their significant temporal variability and large impact on the electromagnetic properties of sea ice. As part of the Lead Experiment held during March and April of 1991 and 1992 in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea, ice properties and surface conditions typical of springtime leads were monitored at three sites during the initial few days of growth. Observations indicate that once the ice thickness reached approximately 2 cm, a thin (∼1 mm), highly saline (∼100 parts per thousand (ppt)) skim of brine formed on the surface. After only a few hours of growth the initially smooth surface of the sea ice developed some small-scale roughness. Frost flowers, the result of ice grown from the vapor phase, quickly formed on the surface of the sea ice and continued to develop during the observations. Depending on the temperature, the frost flowers were composed of various ice crystal types, including clumps, stellar dendrites, and needles. The initially fresh frost flowers quickly became salty, reaching salinities as high as 100 ppt. The salinity of both the frost flowers and the surface skim decreased at night as temperatures dropped and additional hoarfrost accumulated on the surface. These decreases were also due in part to the accumulation of snow on the surface of the leads. Combining these observations with simple calculations, possible mechanisms for the development and evolution of the surface skim and frost flowers are discussed. They include the hypothesis that the source of the surface skim is brine expelled upward from the sea ice as it cools, that the surface protrusions serve as nucleation sites for the frost flowers, and that the source of the excess water vapor necessary for frost flower growth is the wet surface skim.