The title explains it all. Do objects suspended in ice sink over time? You may remember the story of World War 2 planes that were found 260 ft under the ice which would be anachronistic with seasonal ice layering alone. I'm trying to establish other possible mechanisms. I know that ice flows up and down in glaciers, but will an object actually sink in ice over time?

Also, in what way would they sink? Would heavier parts sink faster than the lighter. Does buoyancy play a role.

  • $\begingroup$ Isn't the title misleading? Ice is a solid, how can something sink inside it? $\endgroup$ – jinawee Feb 27 '14 at 18:59
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    $\begingroup$ @MikeDunlavey It seems to be false: physics.stackexchange.com/q/65740 $\endgroup$ – jinawee Feb 27 '14 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ @jinawee I'm not claiming this for ice or glass but some materials that seem to be solid actually experience viscoelastic creep. See for example the famous pitch drop experiment. $\endgroup$ – OSE Feb 27 '14 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ @jinawee Under higher pressure, ice has a lower melting point. Technically if something heavy was placed on ice it could sink in due to this melting effect. If the surrounding climate is below 0 degrees C then as this happens more ice would freeze around the object. Perhaps this could constitute as sinking into a solid. $\endgroup$ – wgrenard Feb 27 '14 at 19:46
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    $\begingroup$ @wgrenard: true, but you need a lot of pressure! $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Feb 27 '14 at 20:10

If the article you are referring to is this one, then the planes didn't sink into the ice but were buried by blizzards.

Ice does exhibit ductile flow at stress of around 1 to 10MPa, but this pressure is equivalent to around 100 to 1000 tons per square metre and this is far above the stresses normally produced by objects resting on ice. Glaciers flow because the stress is concentrated at the interface between the ice and the rock, and this can produce the enormous stresses required.

So the answer to your question is that no, objects don't sink into ice under their own weight (unless your object is made from neutronium). However freeze thaw cycles can give this impression.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting. There is a corollary proposed by some creationists that since these plains were covered so rapidly, 260 feet (79.2 meters) in 40 years, certain core samples could not be as old as they are said to be. I was attempting to refute this particular proposition, or at least answer it as honestly as I can. I'm thinking another approach would be the change in density from the surface downward. I doubt it is constant, and I doubt it is linear. Thanks for your help. $\endgroup$ – Jordan Feb 27 '14 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Jordan when it comes to creationists: don't feed the trolls. $\endgroup$ – Carl Witthoft Feb 27 '14 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Carl, not all creationists are trolls. I consider myself one though I have no problems with evolution or modern cosmology. The Everett interpretation gives me heartburn sometimes, but we'll see how that turns out. $\endgroup$ – Jordan Feb 28 '14 at 13:58

I say yes, things can sink in ice. Here's why: there's a thin layer of liquid on the surface of ice that is why ice is slippery. When you put a body on the surface of ice, it'll keep displacing the layer of liquid, getting deeper and deeper, and will eventually sink completely,

  • $\begingroup$ But how fast does that occur? Have there been measurements to determine the rate at which surface displacement occurs over extended timescales? Is it fast enough to explain the depth of the planes in question? Either way, interesting article, +1. $\endgroup$ – DumpsterDoofus Feb 27 '14 at 20:34
  • $\begingroup$ But would this continue to happen when the object reaches the freezing point of water? $\endgroup$ – Jordan Feb 27 '14 at 20:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Jordan, the paper addresses the problem with the usual explanation of slippery ice through pressure melting. This liquid layer stays on even at very low temperatures, way below freezing. $\endgroup$ – Aksakal Feb 27 '14 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ @DumpsterDoofus, I have no idea how fats this would work. It's probably at the speed of diffusion if not slower. $\endgroup$ – Aksakal Feb 27 '14 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ Note that, while it's true that ice cqn develop a liquid layer when pressed, this is not enough to explain why ice is slippery, which is a rather more complicated question. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Feb 27 '14 at 21:27

I think that just measuring the number of feet of ice above the plane wouldn't be a very accurate way to determine whether the planes had sunk or not, which they likely did. What would also need to be measured would be the thickness of the ice below the planes at the time of landing and the time of recovery. So far, I haven't found any data on that. But, hypothetically, if the depth of the glacier were 3000 feet when the planes landed and the depth below the planes was only 2800 feet when they were recovered, then one could suspect that the planes did actually sink, but with the added accumulation of 60 feet of ice for a total depth of 3060 feet.

And since a significant amount of glacial melting occurs underneath glaciers, which can also affect the rate of of glacial travel, the entire glacier itself is likely sinking down, wearing away and melting from the bottom as more snow and ice accumulate on top. So that would have to be factored in too. Several feet of snow can also compress down to just a few inches of ice with added weight on top. So there are many variables at play here.

What would be cool would be to use several metal objects of substantial mass with GPS devices inside and place them in a vertical line at various depths in the ice, including both extremes--one on the surface of the ice sheet and one on the bedrock below--for a few seasons to see how far they move vertically and laterally. The bedrock itself also moves according the weight on top, including variations in atmospheric pressure. Those data would paint a more vivid picture of what happens to non-ice objects on top of glaciers over time.

  • $\begingroup$ You propose some measurements and point out some issues but I don't see that any of your answer actually answers the question. $\endgroup$ – Brandon Enright Feb 28 '15 at 10:07
  • $\begingroup$ I found this page because I was looking for answers to the same question. I merely offered my thoughts on the topic. But my main point is that glaciers mostly melt from the bottom. Snow falling on top will add weight to push things down, not just objects trapped in the glacier, but the glacier itself, and even the ground below. I was watching a Climate Change video on YouTube and had contentions with their assertion that because the planes were found beneath 268 feet of ice, that there is more ice in Greenland, not less. That's not a conclusion that can be reached from that information. $\endgroup$ – Corey Cowan Mar 1 '15 at 15:56

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