Ice crystals

From Glossary of Meteorology
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ice crystal

Any one of a number of macroscopic, crystalline forms in which ice appears, including hexagonal columns, hexagonal platelets, dendritic crystals, ice needles, and combinations of these forms.

The crystal lattice of ice is hexagonal in its symmetry under most atmospheric conditions. Varying conditions of temperature and vapor pressure can lead to growth of crystalline forms in which the simple hexagonal pattern is present in widely different habits (a thin hexagonal plate or a long thin hexagonal column). In many ice crystals, trigonal symmetry can be observed, suggesting an influence of a cubic symmetry. The principal axis (c axis) of a single crystal of ice is perpendicular to the axis of hexagonal symmetry. Planes perpendicular to this axis are called basal planes (a axes related to the prism facets) and present a hexagonal cross section. Ice is anisotropic in both its optical and electrical properties and has a high dielectric constant (even higher than water) resulting from its water dipole structure. The electrical relaxation time for water is much shorter than for ice (109 Hz compared with 104 Hz), resulting from a chain reaction requirement for molecules to relax through defects in the ice lattice. In the free air, ice crystals compose cirrus-type clouds, and near the ground they form the hydrometeor called, remarkably enough, "ice crystals" (or ice prisms). They are one constituent of ice fog, the other constituent being droxtals. On terrestrial objects the ice crystal is the elemental unit of hoarfrost in all of its various forms. Ice crystals that form in slightly supercooled water are termed frazil. Ice originating as frozen water (e.g., hail, graupel, and lake ice) still has hexagonal symmetry but lacks any external hexagonal form. Analysis of their sections (0.5 mm) in polarized light reveals different crystal shapes and orientations, depending on the freezing and any annealing and subsequent recrystallization process.


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