Opinion
10:50 am
Tue January 7, 2014

Fun inside the polar vortex, throwing boiling water in the air

If you haven't been online in the last 24 hours, or you didn't watch it being done on Anderson Cooper's show over and over last night, then you're in for a treat.

It used to be a something kids in Alaska or in Canada's Northern Territories did for fun.

But with the combination of cold weather and social media, those of us in the Lower 48 can play too (and some of us are burning ourselves).

Life in the polar vortex allows you to do this:

So why does the boiling water suddenly turn into what appears to be a cloud of steam?

Well, it's not steam. They're just tiny ice crystals. LiveScience had Mark Seeley, a climatologist at the University of Minnesota, explains:

"When it's cold outside, there's hardly any water vapor present in the air, whereas boiling water emits vapor very readily. That's why it's steaming," Seeley says. "When you throw the water up in the air, it breaks into much smaller droplets, so there's even more surface for water vapor to come off of.

"Now, cold air is very dense, and this makes its capacity to hold water vapor molecules very low. There's just fundamentally less space for the vapor molecules," Seeley explains. "So when you throw the boiling water up, suddenly the minus 22 air has more water vapor than it has room for. So the vapor precipitates out by clinging to microscopic particles in the air, such as sodium or calcium, and forming crystals. This is just what goes into the formation of snowflakes.

There has to be a big difference in temperature for this to work. Seeley said they don't try it in Minnesota until it's minus 30.

It was minus 7 when we did it, so a difference in temperature of more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Seeley said it will work if the air outside it dry enough. 

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