Photos of the Week – January 7, 2022

Those of you who have been around this blog for a while probably know about my obsession with photographing ice bubbles. I don’t understand all the intricacies of how those bubbles are created, but I think there are at least two forces in play. One is the release of methane and other gases as decomposition occurs underwater. More importantly, I think, those gases are forced out of water as it freezes and have to accumulate someplace. Since ice forms from the water’s surface downward, that gas can’t escape upward, so it is forced into spaces within the water itself – forming bubbles.

Regardless of how they’re formed, I can spend hours exploring a frozen wetland or other water body searching for those gorgeous and entrancing bubbles!

These bubbles were on the surface of the ice and had even gathered some frost overnight. There are others below them, but they’re hard to see in this shot. Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens. ISO 400 f/20, 1/100 sec.

On Monday morning of this week, I went to my favorite restored wetland at the Platte River Prairies, hoping to find some fun ice patterns to photograph. It had gotten very cool very quickly, and that often creates some of the best conditions for ice bubbles. What I found was far better than I’d expected. Not only were there the kind of small bubbles I’m used to (dime and quarter-sized and smaller), there were also much bigger bubbles – up to a foot or more in diameter. I’m assuming that was linked to how quickly the water froze, but that’s just a guess. Either way, it was spectacular!

Here’s a close-up of some smaller bubbles, in the dime to nickel size category. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/16, 1/125 sec.

I spent a couple hours wandering around about half an acre of wetland trying to figure out how to capture what I was seeing and share it. Wide angle lenses seemed to work best, and my fisheye did the best job of showing the depth and layering of the bubbles. What you can’t see in these photos, though, is how clear the water was. As I walked around, I could see the bottom of the wetland below me (about a foot deep or less in most places) and I even chased a small fish around for a short time.

Here’s a fisheye lens photo that shows some of the depth of the ice bubbles in the clear water. These photos are best viewed on a big screen. Either way, be sure to click on the photo to get a better, more detailed look. Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens. ISO 400 f/20, 1/80 sec.
Here’s a variety of sizes and depths of bubbles. Tokina 11-20mm lens @20mm. ISO 400 f/20, 1/80 sec.

I went out to the same wetland spot yesterday afternoon and shot a few thousand more photos. I’m still working those up but will certainly have more to share next week (or before). The ice had changed some between Monday and Thursday, and the big bubbles were less distinct, but there was still plenty to keep me engaged. Both on Monday and Thursday, ice bubbles were only one component of the frozen beauty of the site.

It’s supposed to warm up this weekend, so I might have to wait a while before I can shoot more ice bubbles. That’s probably ok. I have plenty of photos from this week to keep me busy for a while…

I’d love to know why the bubbles cluster together in certain places. There were big spaces with none, or with lots of very tiny bubbles, and then spots with these giant groupings of them. Tokina 11-20mm lens @11mm. ISO 400 f/22, 1/125 sec.
Here’s one of the last shots I took on Monday as the light was getting brighter, which deepened the contrast between bubbles and the dark water, but also made lighting a little trickier. These are three stacked bubbles that were about the same size as a quarter, nickel, and dime, respectively. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/18, 1/320 sec.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

18 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – January 7, 2022

  1. The stacked bubbles in the second and last photos remind me of pancakes, while those taken with the fisheye lens suggest plants that float on the water’s surface with most of their roots, rhizomes, and such dangling below. All of the photos are fascinating, if a bit chill-evoking.

    Something else that caught my attention was this: “One is the release of methane and other gases as decomposition occurs underwater…” I’ve found my ‘project place’ for 2022, and it turned out to be a pond (or something) rather than a prairie; I’ve dubbed it ‘Walden West.’ When I visited on New Year’s day, I wondered why there were so many bubbles; I’ve always assumed critters of some sort, but that may not be so. More research is required!

  2. You are so amazing Chris. Been following you a long time thanks for your enthusiasm. This old biologist needed to be encouraged today God Bless you son.

  3. Ice bubble formation.

    Freezing just acts as a lid.

    Decomposition happens in the bottom sediment. Mostly bacteria happily munching on the pondweed that die and sank in the fall. But also an assortment of invertibrates. Some will be methane, some H2S, some could be simple CO2, but CO2 is quite soluble in water.

    So you have a pocket of moderate activity, and periodically it “burps” and sends a few bubbles upward.

    Bubbles rise until they hit the bottom of the ice. There they perch, like bats.

    But, if you haven’t noticed, it’s still cold out there. So the surface continues to freeze down. Now the perched bubble is embedded in ice.

    The pocket burbs again. New perched bubble below the first one.

    How big are the bubbles:

    * How active is the pocket. More active, bigger bubbles.
    * How cold is it. Colder makes ice capture the bubbles sooner, so they can’t grow from the next burp, but that burp starts a new one.

    In a big lake, there may be currents that will push bubbles around and either break them up into a bunch of little ones, or herd them together.

    • Could it be that the bottom of the ice is not flat either, so that bubbles accumulate where the ice is thinnest–which could be due–totally uneducated speculation– to heat differentials within the water. This mechanism would require that the bubbles had the ability to flow to the thinnest ice, which would be the highest point in the capping ice, the way oil and gas migrate to the top of anticlines. Not sure the bubbles could do that.

  4. The stacked ice bubble s are amazing, Chris. Thanks for that beginning of an explanation about the physics of their formation.

  5. these ice bubbles are so very cool.

    On Fri, Jan 7, 2022 at 9:49 AM The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: ” Those of you who have been around this blog for a > while probably know about my obsession with photographing ice bubbles. I > don’t understand all the intricacies of how those bubbles are created, but > I think there are at least two forces in play. One is ” >

  6. I have never seen such a spectacle. These are indeed enchanting. It makes me wish I lived somewhere near a wetland. From hilltops to rivers edge the farmers around here keep the fields tiled so you don’t see anything like this.


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