Freeze-thaw cycle

Definition of Freeze-Thaw Cycle

A freeze-thaw cycle is the recurrent pattern of water freezing and subsequently melting. Integral to the process of weathering that disintegrates rocks and other surface materials on Earth, freeze-thaw cycles are most prominent in temperate climates where temperature variations exceed and fall below water's freezing point (0°C or 32°F).

How Freeze-Thaw Cycle Works

In the freeze-thaw cycle, water first permeates cracks or pores in rocks, soil, or other materials. Following a drop in temperature to freezing point, this infiltrated water becomes ice and its volume increases by about 9%. This volumetric expansion exerts substantial pressure on the encasing material. With a temperature increase causing the ice to melt, the pressure dissipates. Repetition of the freezing, expanding, melting, and pressure release sequence can eventually lead to material disintegration.

Impacts of Freeze-Thaw Cycle

Freeze-thaw cycles wield considerable influence on both natural environments and man-made structures. In natural settings, they drive physical weathering processes that contribute to rockfalls, landslides, and the formation of specific landforms, including scree slopes - accumulations of loose rocky debris on a gradient.

Within built environments, freeze-thaw cycles can inflict significant damage on buildings and infrastructure, culminating in road potholes, fractures in concrete structures, and compromised building foundations. To mitigate such damage in freeze-thaw susceptible areas, construction methods may need to incorporate specific protective measures.

Role in Climate and Ecosystems

The freeze-thaw cycle also functions as a critical regulator in climate and ecosystem dynamics. It modulates the global carbon cycle by impacting the speed of organic matter decomposition and nutrient release within soils. In colder climates, freeze-thaw cycles can instigate "frost heaving," a process where soil moisture freezing causes ground elevation and influences plant life. The cycle also shapes the habitats and behaviors of numerous cold-climate organisms, necessitating their adaptation to shifting conditions.
Updated: Jun 5, 2023
Published by: Weather U.S. | About Us