Moment of Science: Zen Stones

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” -Lao Tzu
It's a weird winter phenomenon that's all about balance! Dan Smith shows us just how perfect conditions have to be for "zen stones" to form. 🧊🪨
Published: Nov. 29, 2022 at 11:45 AM EST
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We’ve explored plenty of fascinating natural phenomena on this show, but there’s one that scientists are still trying to fully figure out -- and recently, may have come up with the answer. Enter the world of “zen stones”.

* Chances are your mind just went to those flat, oval rock creations often found along the seashore... but those stacks are entirely manmade. THIS is our main focus today, a long way from a warm spa. It looks like a rock breaching the water’s surface, but in reality, it’s perfectly balanced on a thin pedestal of ice on Siberia’s Lake Baikal.

* If you’ve ever thrown a rock in the middle of a frozen lake in the dead of winter, you’ve already completed Step 1. The stone just sits there on the ice until warmer temperatures can melt it, and the stone weight eventually wins out and breaks through the ice. That’s what happens to MOST in this case. Researchers now think the zen stone effect has to do with something we’ve learned about before: “sublimation”! When you have dry enough air -- a little easier to do in Siberia than the Great Lakes -- direct sunlight changes the water, but it directly goes from a solid to a gas, without actually melting into that liquid stage.

* The rock itself naturally casts a shadow and blocks the sunlight from warming the ice in the middle. It’s similar to how you get a dusting of snow that melts off easily in late morning sun, except in the shadows of trees and buildings and the like. Anyway, that miniature umbrella effect makes the ice sublimate at slightly lower rates near the center, leading to that extremely rare and delicate balance. Recently, it was recreated in a lab setting using a small metal disc... sure enough, lower infrared radiation underneath the plate led to that pedestal, with sublimated gas swirling throughout.

* That sublimation effect is even found in tropical latitudes. High in the Andes Mountains, these jagged formations called “penitentes” operate under the same cold, dry conditions, but can reach heights up to 15 feet.

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