Wednesday, February 15, 2012

I Am Your Density -- Life On Ice

Biology concepts – density of water, latent heat, stratification


Ernest Rutherford showed that atoms were
mostly space by shooting alpha particles at
a sheet of gold foil. Only a few particles struck
something solid, most just passed straight
through – because the atom is mostly the
absence of matter.
It is amazing to know that atoms are mostly empty space. Atoms make up everything around us, including the stuff that hurts when it hits me in the head, but even those things are mostly empty space... or maybe its my head that's empty.

When atoms fit together to form molecules and molecules fit together to form solids and liquids there is also space. How massive the molecules are and how much space is between them determines a substance’s density.

Density (mass per unit volume) has a big impact on biology, and we have been talking about water for a few weeks, so let’s talk about the density of water. Simply put, without water’s unique density properties, life as we know it on Earth would not be possible.

Pure liquid water has a density of 1 g/cm3 (or 1 g/ml). This is 800x times the density of air, so moving around in water is much harder and requires more energy than moving around on a land. Try running in the pool – we just aren’t built for moving in water.


Gram for gram, fish have more muscle than
any other vertebrate animal. Notice how the
muscle fibers are arranged in different
directions to provide forward movement as
the skeleton changes orientation.
But fish have adapted streamlined shapes and big muscles in order to move through water a little easier. The skeleton of a fish is the most complex of all vertebrates. The skull anchors the waving of the vertebral column and the attached muscles. The muscle fibers (myomeres) are arranged so that the muscles can contract in several different directions as the swaying motion passes down the fish body. In all, a fish is about 80% muscle. If you are a marine fish, you’d better be even stronger, since ocean water is slightly more dense (between 1.02 and 1.03 g/cm3, depending on the salinity).

But here is the amazing part - when water freezes, its density goes down. Most substances are denser as solids than as liquids, but water is the exception. As ice crystals form, the water molecules arrange themselves in a very particular order, and this order places slightly more space between them as compared to when they are in liquid form. More space means less mass per unit volume, ie. lower density (0.92 g/ml)….. and this is a key to life on Earth.


Water will form ice crystals in a definite structure,
with more space between the molecules than when
in liquid form. Snow crystals form from water vapor,
not liquid water, and retain a more hexagonal lattice
shape that may stack on one another.
Imagine for a moment that ice was denser than water. Then as the winter came, the winds would blow, the surface water in the pond behind your house would start to cool down, but the deeper water would be a little warmer (remember that water has a high specific heat, it likes to retain its heat. As the surface water arranged itself into a crystal form, ie. turned to ice, it would sink. The warmer water would then be pushed up higher and exposed to the colder temperatures, freeze, and fall to the bottom. Eventually the pond would fill with ice, and be completely frozen.

Few animals or plants could survive in a solid block of ice, so life would cease to exist in the pond. What is more, when spring came, the sun’s energy and warmer temperatures would have to penetrate to bottom of the pond in order to melt all the ice, and this would take longer than a spring summer and fall to occur. Most bodies of water would stay somewhat frozen all year long.

Our food webs (who eats who) depend so much on the growth in water, and half of the Earth’s oxygen’s production oxygen depends so much on phytoplankton, the one celled plants that float on the water’s surface and release oxygen as a by product of photosynthesis. So we couldn't survive for long with completely frozen bodies of water. What is more, frozen lakes and bays would eliminate huge heat sinks that normally keep the surface of the earth warm, so we would plunge into another ice age.

Can you imagine if the massive number of aquatic organisms died as a result of their environment being frozen year round? The animals that feed on them would then die, and the animals that feed on them would die, etc. Eventually the animals on the land that feed on the amphibians and fish would die, and so on.  What’s more, we humans would be looking for more warm clothing while we gasped for enough oxygen to survive! Relax, we are all just fine, and it is because ice floats. Surface water freezes, trapping heat below and keeping the aquatic organisms comfy and cozy until spring.


The North American wood frog can freeze
solid in a long Arctic winter, but once it thaws,
it has work to do. It must find a find a mate and
then fertilize the eggs. The fertilized eggs have
to develop from to tadpoles and then to adults
during the short warm period. Then they can
freeze next winter.
You might have noticed that above I mentioned that MOST organisms can’t survive being frozen, but there is an exception. The wood frog (Rana sylvatica) winters in shallow burrows that are not protected from the cold. To survive, the frog actually freezes solid!

Nucleating proteins in the frog’s blood act as point for ice to form as soon as the frost touches the amphibian’s porous skin. Since the frog is still above 0˚C at this point, the freezing is slower, and the frog can control it. As the liquids freeze, the water is pulled out of the frog’s cells.

It replaces the water with huge amounts of glucose and sugar alcohols, that keep the cells from forming ice crystals (they are sharp and would puncture the cells causing permanent damage and death). Eventually, the frog is 65% frozen and the internal organs are surrounded by a pool of ice until spring, when it takes about 10 hours for the frog to thaw and hop away. Scientists are now using this process to freeze and thaw rat hearts and livers without damage, in hopes to use to the process in human organs for transplant.

But freezing and thawing a whole organism is harder than using a glucose bath to freeze individual organs. Research from early 2013 shows the energy that R. sylvatica must spend to accomplish this feat. In response to cooling near the freezing point, the wood frog increases its metabolism to prepare for freezing. But this increase in metabolism is nothing compared to the increase the frog undergoes when freezing is first detected in its tissues. Carbon dioxide (a sign of metabolism) is increased by 5.8 fold during freezing, as to the period just before freezing. This increase is needed to mobilize glucose into the tissues as the cryoprotectant.

The same thing happens when R. sylvatica thaws, metabolism increases to exactly the same degree as during freezing. But in this instance, the increased cellular activity is necessary for re-establishment of homeostasis and for tissue repair (no anti-freezing strategy is perfect). We have a long way to go to mimic the wood frog's entire preservation strategy, especially since the frog may go through these increases as many as twenty times each winter!

The wood frog takes advantage of freezing in order to survive. Humans can also take advantage of freezing water (other than keeping your drink cold); in fact, your orange juice may depend on it. Freezing of oranges or grapes ruins them for the same reason it kills animals, it causes frostbite. Ice crystals stab through the cell membrane and cell contents spill out. This isn’t conducive to continued function.

To prevent oranges and grapes from freezing, farmers will spray them with water when their frost warning systems sound the alarm. Does that make sense, spraying with water to keep something from freezing? It has to do with a property of freezing called latent heat. This is an amount of energy taken up or given off when a substance changes phase (solid to liquid to gas). The energy goes to changing the arrangement of molecules with no change in temperature.


Oranges can be protected from freezing by
spraying them with water which then freezes!
In a controversial use of genetic modification,
bacteria that do not permit ice crystal formation
can be sprayed on the oranges to compete with
the normal bacteria there. These "ice-minus"
Pseudomonas syringae can reduce frost damage
on oranges, but have not been used commercially.
As water surrounding the orange or grape changes from liquid to solid, the formation of crystals gives off heat (539.4 gram-calories per gram of water frozen).  The latent heat of the freezing mist is enough to keep the fruit above 0˚C. This technique doesn’t work if the temperature falls much below 0˚C or stays at 0˚C for an extended time, but it does work well enough to save millions of dollars per year in freezing damage.

Thermal changes have more to do with differences in water density than salt concentration does, so seasonal changes can alter density in both freshwater and salt water. Even if the changes are not enough to form ice or boil the water, differences in temperature can result in different layers of water within a freshwater body or an ocean.

Both salt water and freshwater are affected by the sunlight that strikes their surfaces. As water warms, it’s density decreases, and the nutrients in the water stay close to the surface. This supplies phytoplankton and algae with lots of food, and blooms can occur.

As winter approaches, the surface water cools and becomes more dense (down to 4˚C). The dense water drops to the bottom and taking nutrients down to the benthic organisms. When all the water reaches 4˚C, the surface can begin to freeze.

In the spring, the process is reversed, and the temperature layers (stratification) can churn again. In salt water, the differences in salinity are added to the differences in density to bring complex stratifications, both in salt content and temperature.


Stratification shows how temperature can set up
layers of water of different density (least dense is
the epilimnion). In the winter, the water is churned,
and then churned again in spring. These churnings
based on changing density move the nutrients around
so everyone gets fed.
Different organisms thrive in different temperature and salinity layers. In order to stay put, some floating organisms (planktonic) and swimming organisms (nektonic) can adjust their buoyancies. Fish can use swim bladders, which are air filled cavities to help them stay buoyant. The size of the bladder is regulated by the CO2 and O2 in the blood that can remain dissolved or leave the blood as a gas.

Bladderwort plants also use air filled cavities to keep part of themselves afloat. Sharks, on the other hand, produce large amounts of oil in their livers to reduce their density; oil is less dense than water, just look at your salad dressing layers.

Plankton can also slightly adjust their densities, but floating is easier for very small things. To them, water is thick, the polar charges have a larger effect on their small bodies. It would be like us trying to swim in molasses. They still have to adapt to seasonal changes in density, but they do it in more subtle (and harder to explain) ways.

Just because there is water around, it doesn’t mean that life will be easy. Next week we will look at a continent-sized exception to idea of water availability.


Sinclair, B., Stinziano, J., Williams, C., MacMillan, H., Marshall, K., & Storey, K. (2012). Real-time measurement of metabolic rate during freezing and thawing of the wood frog, Rana sylvatica: implications for overwinter energy use Journal of Experimental Biology, 216 (2), 292-302 DOI: 10.1242/jeb.076331



For more information, classroom activities and laboratories on the density of water, latent heat, North American wood frog, or stratification, see:

Density of water –

latent heat –

North American wood frog –

stratification –
http://www.lmvp.org/Waterline/spring2002/stratification.htm