Much of North America is experiencing the coldest temperatures in twenty years. They call this a polar vortex, in which Arctic air currents sweep further south than usual. Today is supposed to be the coldest day of the vortex. For now. Temperatures fell so fast that reports came in across Canada of frostquakes, which occur when groundwater freezes so fast that it cracks the frozen ground. They make a lot of noise, but don't cause much damage. Other strange things occur when the temperature falls this far and this fast.
Last year, Yan at Geeks Are Sexy made a video demonstrating what happens when you throw boiling water into the air when it's very cold outside. At the time, in Ontario, the temperature was -13°F (-25°C). He explained,
Oh, and for those who are wondering why you need to use hot water, well, hot water evaporates more quickly than cold water since it’s already closer to the point of evaporation, so when it hits cold air in the form of tiny droplets of liquid, it just turns into snow and water vapor.
He also added a warning to be careful throwing, lest the hot water fall on you. The transformation may seem instantaneous, but it does take a little time. There are other such videos, like a demonstration from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where the temperature was -30°C (-22°F), and another from Alaska at -40° (C&F). They even try this stunt at -52°C in Oymyakon, Russia.
In fact, the trick had become so common that this year, chrisgsauce had to step up the game a bit to go viral. When the temperature dipped to -41° in South Porcupine, Ontario, last week, he loaded the hot water into a Super Soaker!
You can see almost the same type of reaction on a larger scale when a hot springs geyser erupts in the recent extremely cold temperatures in Iceland.
Eruption, water vapor, snowfall, and no water. Cool, huh?
The problem with stunts like this is that people try to recreate it without taking the proper precautions. Suddenly, the latest deep freeze has given that opportunity to Americans who have never dealt with temperatures this low. In their excitement, many actually burned themselves with the hot water. At least 50 Tweets related the same story.
Unlike Canadians, few of the new experimenters used a pair of weatherproof gloves -and they probably haven't ever played with boiling water before. Couple that with the fact that it isn't quite -40 degrees in most of the United States, and throwing boiling water into the air doesn't seem so safe anymore.
In Chicago, Micah Uetricht tried the experiment because the wind chill was 30 below, but that isn't the same as the real air temperature. And stepping out on the balcony without proper outdoor clothing is asking for trouble. Video contains some NSFW language.
A much safer experiment for those of us in the lower 48 would be to blow soap bubbles and see how fast they freeze. As thin as that soap membrane is, it doesn't take long in cold air!
In the weird case of the "ice serpents" emerging from this pipe, a lot of rain fell, which filled the pipe, then the temperature dropped quickly. As the water froze, it was pushed out of a hole in the pipe, creating the weirdly beautiful structures. Photograph by Ninja Viking.
This is what happens when a building catches on fire during a deep freeze. This warehouse in Chicago burned last January, and required plenty of water from the Chicago Fire Department to extinguish it. However, with the temperature at around 10°F, the water froze as soon as it did its job. See more pictures here. Photograph by Robert R Gigliotti of RPGPhotography.
So if you're going to go out and have fun in the snow, dress warmly, and take the necessary precautions before you experiment!