What is Ice Wedging? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Defining Ice Wedging
  • 0:57 Why Ice Wedging Happens
  • 2:36 Examples of Ice Wedging
  • 3:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Josh Corbat

Josh has taught Earth Science and Physical Science at the High School level and holds a Master of Education degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.

This lesson describes ice wedging, how it happens, and why water's unique properties lead to this common form of weathering. After viewing this lesson, you may recognize many examples of ice wedging in your day-to-day life.

Introducing and Defining Ice Wedging

Have you ever wondered how all the fish in a local pond or lake survive the winter when the surface of the water completely freezes over? Or why the ice cubes you put in your glass of water always tend to float to the top? Water is an incredible substance and has many properties that make it unique from other substances on Earth. One of water's more astounding properties is that it expands and becomes less dense as it freezes. Most liquids don't do this!

The fact that water expands and becomes less dense when it freezes explains why ponds and lakes freeze only at the top (instead of freezing solid--along with all the fish!) and why ice cubes always float in a glass of water. This expansion of water as it freezes is the basic concept behind ice wedging (also sometimes called 'frost wedging'). Ice wedging is a form of mechanical weathering or physical weathering in which cracks in rock or other surfaces fill with water, freeze and expand, causing the cracks to enlarge and eventually break.

Why Ice Wedging Happens

Ice wedging happens whenever water is able to get into small cracks in rock or other material and freeze. While freezing, the water expands and causes the crack to widen. If this happens many times (water seeping into the crack, freezing, expanding, and widening the crack), the crack will eventually break completely.

This type of weathering is common in areas that have frequent freeze and thaw cycles, like anywhere in the northern United States or other cold regions. It is especially common in areas where temperatures dip below freezing at night and climb above freezing during the day. This is because ice wedging can happen on a daily basis, causing the cracks in rock to expand at much faster rates.

Frequent freeze/thaw cycles are important for ice wedging to occur. The climate of an area is the strongest indicator of whether or not ice wedging will occur. If the climate is temperate frequent freeze/thaw cycles will happen, leading to ice wedging. A temperate climate has some periods of cold and some periods of warm temperatures, like hot summers and cold winters.

Ice wedging is a very common type of weathering. The reason ice wedging is so common is because water in its liquid form can make its way into even the smallest of cracks; even cracks too small to see! Once there, the freezing, expanding water causes the crack to widen, which fills with even more water and refreezes. It's a vicious cycle! And, since water is very common on Earth, it is very likely that water will be available for ice wedging to happen wherever temperatures are ideal.

Water seeps into a crack in a rock (left), then freezes and expands (right) causing the crack to widen and eventually break.
Ice wedging

The water in image A represents a small crack. Image B shows how that crack will widen over time as the freeze/thaw cycle occurs.

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