Science Journal

Photo: Radek Mikuláš

Lots of us might be sick of the cold, literally and figuratively, but as the skiers begin hanging up their hats as the birds and the bugs come back, so ends the happy time of the year for at least one man in the Czech Scientific community, Radek Mikuláš. Dr. Mikuláš is not your everyday geologist. For 20 years he has been venturing out onto the winter rivers, ponds and reservoirs of the Czech Republic on skates to study a very special type of rock – ice. The fruit of his labour, a book called Ledové Čechy, or “Icy Bohemia”, won a prize from publishers Academia recently for its beautiful production, and it’s not without some fascinating insights. Earlier this week I went to visit Dr Mikuláš in his tiny office at the Institute of Geology.

Radek Mikuláš
“Many geologists consider ice to be a kind of rock…”

Well it is a rock.

“It is a rock. In glaciers, in glacial caves, or in other situations.”

It’s a rock with a very, very low melting point.


How did you become interested in ice?

“Just through the beauty of it. When I was at the age of 11 or 12, I don’t remember exactly, I found a river I knew from summer holidays to be frozen with very clean ice, and it gave me the possibility to see what I had never seen before, the life in water with my own eyes. So the same winter I discovered some peculiarities, like chains of bubbles or various kinds of crystals, and from that time I had in my memory that ice itself is very nice.”

You have seen some things in ice I think that you believe other people may not have noticed…

“Yes, one discovery that I think is really original is the existence of electrical features, fields, in some kinds of ice. Sometimes you can observe curves in the ice that are pretty similar to lines of electric fields…”

The kind of pattern that iron dust makes if you put a magnet under it on a piece of paper…

Photo: Radek Mikuláš
“Exactly, it is the same. These lines grow to avoid mutual contact. They appear after several days of temperatures above zero.”

But it’s not electrical, it doesn’t have anything to do with electricity, or does it?

“It probably does. At these times the upper four to five centimetres of ice are melted and the ice is covered with water, and it’s highly probably that the water in these partly isolated crystals is different in its chemical composition from water in a river or pond or whatever. So it could actually work as an electrolyte. The similarity of the patters is such, that there is no mechanism observable, let’s say in geology, other than electricity that can make patterns like this. It can influence the growth of the crystals when the temperature jumps below and above the freezing point many times over.

And so this is a phenomenon that you can only view in ice?

“It is a phenomenon that awaits a detailed scientific study. Maybe there is something important in this observation that could be applicable to other situations, to materials other than ice.”

You’ve also studied methane bubbles in ice.

“Yes. This is rather simple compared to the electrical thing. What I have tried is to study the composition of these bubbles, because some of them are composed of methane, created by plant life in the pond or river. It’s a well-known phenomenon, not my discovery. There are bubbles, for example in Siberia in the permafrost, and after penetrating the ice mass and striking a match you can make a flame that is tens of metres high! These reservoirs can be tremendous, but in the Czech Republic, where the sediment of ponds is several metres thick, the accumulation of methane is not that big and if the flame is visible for one minute then it’s a nice experience for a random observer.”

Over the last 20 years have you travelled a lot to study ice?

“Yes, actually I’ve travelled the whole of the Czech Republic, but with a few exceptions I have not seen ice phenomena abroad, which is perhaps a mistake, but I’m convinced that every climate creates specific ice structures, so Central Europe should have different ice tectonics, aesthetics and composition than, let’s say, Alaska.”

So, if you look at ice in a pond in South Moravia you’ll find different features than you would in Central Bohemia?

“It’s highly probable. Let’s say, changing temperatures, above and below zero,v ery often models the structure of the ice. The ice can recrystallise to extents we can hardly imagine. Big crystals can appear to join an originally homogenous mass and recrystallise several times. This is more probably in South Moravia than in the Czech mountains, where there tends to be permanent frost and snow cover. The appearance of snow and rain precipitation as well makes differences in the development of individual ice-covers of different waters. “

What can these changes in features in different types of ice tell us about geology in general?

“You know, there is no specialisation, no scientific branch, as would be fully equivalent with my activities, because they are party hydrology, partly mineralogy – especially in caves, where many interesting minerals appear in ice formations. In the spring, rivers can transport rather big blocks of ice that can enhance erosion of the banks and flooding that is connected to the existence of an ice mass is very dangerous. So these are geological effects of ice, but the knowledge of the internal structure of ice is more of an indirect analogy to basic knowledge of the behaviour of rocks on the one hand and water on the other hand.”

Lastly, in 20 years of studying ice, how many times have you fallen in?

“Well, if I count falling in to a deft of 20cm, that’s happened maybe 15 times. That’s not such a big problem, as long as you have an extra pair of socks. Once I fell in, very unexpectedly, all the way up to my head. It was on the Ohře, one of the biggest rivers of Bohemia. I tested the thickness of the ice very carefully before stepping on to it, but there was some inhomogenity, maybe just a big bubble. Sol I fell in very quickly, but fortunately I got out very quickly as well. You need to be prepared for the situation; you need specific tools, to protect yourself in such a situation, you need picks to crawl out with, because it’s very difficult with only your hands on the ice to fins the strength and the way to pull yourself out of the hole.”