Cold Weather & Hot Water

The Outdoor Classroom team is passionate about sharing our own personal experiences relating to science. Check out the following post from Ben Rossetter!

When I was kid living in upstate New York, a huge winter storm hit, dumping feet of snow and burying in our house for three days.  The weathermen and women called the storm the “Blizzard of ’96”.  Weather forecasting services have since improved their ability to come up with some intimidating and dramatic names for the storms and other phenomena that impact our lives.  Earlier this month, the “Bomb Cyclone” hit the east coast with ferocity.  And, while there was certainly a lot of snow and some cold temperatures, it wasn’t quite the biggest or baddest storm that we’ve ever seen.

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There were, however, some incredibly cold temperatures.  These cold temps meant that I got to play with some boiling water to perform an experiment that I’ve seen on YouTube but never gotten the chance to do myself.  I boiled some water in a pot, took it outside into the -3°F air, and tossed it up in the air. You can see the video on our Facebook page or here.

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What’s the science behind this experiment?  When the boiling water is thrown up into the air, the water breaks up into tiny droplets.  Cold air is extremely dense, and therefore isn’t able to hold as much water vapor.  The drops can’t evaporate into the atmosphere.  Instead, the tiny water droplets cool extremely quickly, grab onto tiny microscopic particles in the air, and then freeze.  This is very similar to how snow is formed.

Interestingly, this experiment won’t work with cold water.  Cold water is more viscous than hot water, and won’t break up into tiny droplets like hot water will.

This is a wonderful experiment to do with students to demonstrate the formation of snow and how cold weather impacts life on Earth.  However, be extremely careful.  If it isn’t cold enough or not done properly, the boiling water could still burn any exposed skin.

Happy Experimenting!