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Name: Shannon
Status: educator
Age: 20s
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 1999-2001

The freezing point of water is 32 degrees Celsius. Is this the temperature at which water freezes, or does water freeze below 32 degrees? The reason I ask is that I am an editing a children's text book explaining the basics of weather. We have a statement in our book that I believe may be inaccurate. Here is the statement: "Ice forms when the temperature goes below 32 degrees." Is this correct, or does ice form when water reaches 32 degrees? Which is it - at or below?


A couple of points:

1. Ice MELTS at 32 degrees FAHRENHEIT not CELSIUS. Don't confuse the kids on that. The point here is if I have a piece of ice below 32 F it will be solid. If I heat the piece of ice slowly it turns into liquid water at 32 F. The reason you see ice cubes floating around in warmer water or other liquids is that the heat must be transported from the warmer liquid to the ice for it to melt and in the real world this takes time.

2. Going in the other direction, that is, cooling liquid water or water vapor, things are more complicated. Both liquid water and water vapor can be cooled to temperatures lower than 32 F without immediately forming solid ice. Sometimes in carefully controlled conditions for quite a long time. The reason for this is for liquid water, or water vapor, to form ice crystals, there must be a site for the formation of the ice to begin. When that does ice formation is very rapid. These non-equilibrium conditions are said to be supercooled.

So saying, "Ice MELTS at 32 F." is a far more certain statement than saying, "Liquid water [or vapor] FREEZES at 32 F." because under some conditions it doesn't happen immediately.

Vince Calder

Shannon -

Thanks for wanting to get the facts correct. Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit and 0 degrees Celsius. (These are the same temperature on different scales.) Of course it will also freeze below that temperature. There are times when the water does not have enough energy to move the molecules into the crystalline arrangement before the temperature of the water drops lower. This can happen in a number of ways. One possibility are rain drops... called super-cooled droplets. When these strike something such as the ground, a car, or an airplane in flight, the energy from the strike provided the energy for the water to instantly change into ice.

Also, the temperature is a measure of the average energy of a molecule This means that some molecules in 32 degree water have more energy and are not candidates for forming a crystal (freezing, that is). Others will be less than 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

For your kids book... assuming younger kids... I think "water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit" would work fine and not be misleading them.

Larry Krengel

The melting point of frozen water under normal atmospheric conditions is 32 degrees FAHRENHEIT (not Celsius). This is well established in most texts. There is some problem with calling it the freezing point. Microscopic ice crystals actually start forming below 4 degrees C (about 40 degrees F), which accounts for the densest liquid water gets at 4 C. As more of the ice crystals form, the density of water decreases a little bit until the water actually changes phases to ice. One would normally think that this happens at 32 F, but you can get super cooled water that remains a liquid until 29 F and then rapidly freezes. This is one of the events that occurs when there is freezing rain. The water droplets are actually super cooled, and freeze on contact.

Depending on the age level for the book, you may want to include all of this. If it is for a young audience, then I would stick with ice melting at 32 F, but water freezes at or below 32 F.

I hope my colleagues who also answer this question agree with me!

---Nathan A. Unterman

My understanding is that it freezes AT 32 degrees. If you look at a chemistry or physics text book, look up melting point or boiling point. you will find a graph of the states of water...according to this, it freezes at 32. good luck

Katie Page

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