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Processes of the Water Cycle

The processes of the water cycle including evaporation, precipitation and sublimation carry water between reservoirs.

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Credit: European Southern Observatory
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Penitentes_Ice_Formations_.png
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Some substances change from solid to gas without going through the liquid phase. This is called sublimation. Even solid water as snow may sublimate. Penitentes are a high altitude snow formation that results from sublimation.

Why It Matters

  • When a substance changes phases (from solid to liquid, or liquid to gas, or the reverse) there is a change in energy. More heat is needed to change from solid to gas than from solid to liquid.
  • Water ice sublimates under certain conditions: Usually at high altitude where the atmospheric pressure is lower and energy from the sun is strong. High winds can cause sublimation.
  • Snow on a snowfield sublimates when it is very cold and the sun shines directly on the upper layers of snow.
  • Sublimation is part of the water cycle, although it’s a relatively small part.
  • Dry ice (solid carbon dioxide) sublimates at very cold temperatures. 
  • Credit: Ethan Lofton
    Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/12348847@N00/637633174
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    Dry ice in a glass [Figure2]


  • Check out the Dry-Ice Bomb video (below) about how to harness sublimation of dry ice. Don’t try this at home!

Explore More

With the link below, learn more about sublimation. Then answer the following questions.

  1. What does solid frozen carbon dioxide do when it is brought out of a freezer?
  2. Why does the bottle explode when dry ice is left in a closed bottle and why?
  3. Why does the bottle explode?
  4. Where do you think sublimation of snow to water vapor is most common?

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    Image Attributions

    1. [1]^ Credit: European Southern Observatory; Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Penitentes_Ice_Formations_.png; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
    2. [2]^ Credit: Ethan Lofton; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/12348847@N00/637633174; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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