# Why does ice form on bridges even if the temperature is above freezing?

So with this "arctic blast" continuing, I've noticed that for my area, the temperature drops below freezing just long enough to cause freezing rain, but then the sun comes out and the temperature rises immediately. However, on bridges, ice continues to form.

How can ice form even if the temperature is above freezing?

As a supplement to @tpg2114's answer, it also depends on the "wetness" of an object.

As most people should know the evaporation of water requires energy and this lowers the temperature.

The lowest temperature a wet object can reach is what is called the "wet-bulb temperature." This can be several degrees lower than the "dry-bulb temperature," the amount can vary depending on the humidity (specifically atmospheric pressure). If that wet-bulb temperature gets below 0°C, then freezing is possible.

In order for said wet object to get close to the wet-bulb temperature, some convection needs to occur in order to take that evaporated water away (i.e. wind).

This is one of the ways wind under a bridge can cause freezing under the right conditions. Another possible reason might be heat lost by radiation or the earth via conduction.

• Heat loss via conduction won't cause bridges to cool down faster than the surrounding land. I think the radiative effect is dominant. Jan 29, 2014 at 10:03
• @gerrit yes It would; a more obvious instance of this is the use of thermal wells in some HVAC systems. The further down you go, the less variation in temperature with outside conditions. When the surface is cool, the not-quite-as-cool dirt and rocks below it warm it up considerably. For the same reason, snowfall does not typically accumulate immediately upon starting, as the ground is not yet at the freezing point. Lower material is able to source enough heat to keep the surface above freezing unless it is particularly cold out, or particularly high wind. Jan 29, 2014 at 18:01
• @AJMansfield But that's not the bridge having a conductive heat sink, that's the bridge lacking a conductive heat source. In other words, the road is heated from below, but the bridge isn't. But the bridge does not lose heat through conduction (it is, to a first order, only in contact with air, and air is a bad heat conductor). Jan 29, 2014 at 20:06

Typically freezing rain falls as water because the air is warm enough that it won't be ice, but then it freezes when it's on the surface of things because those surfaces are below freezing. This usually happens with roads and the ground when it's been a long time of very cold temperatures.

Bridges also tend to get colder, faster, than other roads because air can flow under them. They don't get the thermal insulation and thermal absorption of the ground. So regular roads may be warm enough or have warmed enough to prevent freezing while bridges have not warmed up enough yet to prevent ice from forming.

• don't forget about the water evaporating Jan 28, 2014 at 21:34
• @ton.yeung That's a possible factor but if it's close to freezing and it's been precipitating, my guess is the relative humidity is quite high and so the evaporation rate would be pretty low. Obviously if it's super windy or something that would change, but it's probably not a significant factor otherwise. Jan 28, 2014 at 21:47
• its super windy Jan 28, 2014 at 21:53
• Freezing rain more typically falls as liquid, supercooled water. Jan 28, 2014 at 22:17

Short answer is it can't form when the temperature of the water is above the freezing point. As @Krazer and @tpg2114 have pointed out the temperature of water on surfaces will frequently be lower than the air temperature.

I'm answering just to clarify that the wet-bulb temperature is only indirectly relevant. The wet bulb temperature is not (definitionally) the lowest temperature an object can reach as a result of evaporation. It does provide a lower bound on the temperature that can be reached under outside conditions as experimentally at these pressures it turns out that the rate of convective heating of the water by the air tends to be faster than the rate of evaporative cooling of the water. Thus, the coldest evaporative cooling can reduce the water will be no lower than the coldest the water can make the air. This, of course, occurs when the air evaporates as much water as possible and the total amount of air is very large compared with the water left (so the water contains a negligible amount of thermal energy and is cooled to the air temperature) and at a temperature equal to the wet bulb temperature.

Working outside one also has to deal with radiative and convective transfers from a very very large volume of air and if still air is left around the water reservoir the rate of cooling by evaporation will drop as the air approaches saturation and the huge body of dry air will start to heat the reservoir faster than it is being cooled. Experimentally, it turns out that high wind speeds and shielded reservoirs give the largest cooling but can't actually reach the wet bulb temperature.

However, as suggested here at lower air pressures convection does not ultimate dominate evaporative cooling. In this case one can reduce the water to a lower temperature than the surrounding air and the wet bulb temperature is no longer a minimum value for the temperature evaporation can reduce surface to. Essentially this works since you are letting the highest energy molecules in the water escape and thereby reducing the average kinetic energy of the remaining molecules and the air is so thin that this effect cools the water faster than the neighboring air can heat it back up.

Another item to think of is the temperature of the bridge itself. If the temperature had been previously below freezing, and the bridge structure itself is cold, it will continue to act as a heat sink until it warms up.

I believe windchill is only a perception of cold as related to human skin and is not an actual temperature. While the wind could act as an evaporative device and therefore aid in a small way to cooling a bridge slightly I do not believe that a windchill factor would aid in freezing water. From Marion Webster: Definition of windchill. : a still-air temperature that would have the same cooling effect on exposed human skin as a given combination of temperature and wind speed —called also chill factor, windchill factor, windchill index.

• Welcome to Physics SE, Jim Kowalski. Your answer does clarify an issue but does not answer the asker's question. Please consider improving your answer. Thank You. Jan 14, 2017 at 6:43

I've pondered that as well. And here is my thoughts.

Roadways have the benefit of being "insulated" by the earth under them. So in freezing conditions, the ground underneath is still liberating heat and the roadway may not be at 0C/32F quite yet.

Bridges, however, do not benefit from being insulated by the earth- they are exposed to the environment on all sides. And hence, they can approach environmental temperature much faster. In this case, freezing or below.

So, watch for ice on bridges!

The wind's "chill factor" is a surface area effect. In a bridge, the surface area exposed to the wind is at least twice as much as a comparable section of the road, so with the proper conditions, the bridge's surface will be colder than the freezing point while the road is above this point. For example, assume the still air temperature is 44F and the chill factor -10F. The temperature on the road would be 34F, while the temperature on the bridge would be around 24F.

Simply it is radiative cooling, or losing heat from a surface on earth to the outer space via thermal radiation. You can have an ambient temperature of 3 C, and the bridge temperature might be -2 C due to this mechanism of cooling. Radiative cooling happen for materials that are good thermal emitters over the range of wavelength where the atmosphere is almost transparent to radiation.