Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Snow crystal imaging using scanning electron microscopy: III. Glacier ice, snow and biota

January 1, 2000

Low-temperature scanning electron microscopy (SEM) was used to observe metamorphosed snow, glacial firn, and glacial ice obtained from South Cascade Glacier in Washington State, USA. Biotic samples consisting of algae (Chlamydomonas nivalis) and ice worms (a species of oligochaetes) were also collected and imaged. In the field, the snow and biological samples were mounted on copper plates, cooled in liquid nitrogen, and stored in dry shipping containers which maintain a temperature of-196°C. The firn and glacier ice samples were obtained by extracting horizontal ice cores, 8 mm in diameter, at different levels from larger standard glaciological (vertical) ice cores 7.5 cm in diameter. These samples were cooled in liquid nitrogen and placed in cryotubes, were stored in the same dry shipping container, and sent to the SEM facility. In the laboratory, the samples were sputter coated with platinum and imaged by a low-temperature SEM. To image the firn and glacier ice samples, the cores were fractured in liquid nitrogen, attached to a specimen holder, and then imaged. While light microscope images of snow and ice are difficult to interpret because of internal reflection and refraction, the SEM images provide a clear and unique view of the surface of the samples because they are generated from electrons emitted or reflected only from the surface of the sample. In addition, the SEM has a great depth of field with a wide range of magnifying capabilities. The resulting images clearly show the individual grains of the seasonal snowpack and the bonding between the snow grains. Images of firn show individual ice crystals, the bonding between the crystals, and connected air spaces. Images of glacier ice show a crystal structure on a scale of 1–2 mm which is considerably smaller than the expected crystal size. Microscopic air bubbles, less than 15 μm in diameter, clearly marked the boundaries between these crystal-like features. The life forms associated with the glacier were easily imaged and studied. The low-temperature SEM sample collecting and handling methods proved to be operable in the field; the SEM analysis is applicable to glaciological studies and reveals details unattainable by conventional light microscopic methods.

Publication Year 2000
Title Snow crystal imaging using scanning electron microscopy: III. Glacier ice, snow and biota
DOI 10.1080/02626660009492335
Authors A. Rango, W.P. Wergin, E.F. Erbe, E.G. Josberger
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Hydrological Sciences Journal
Index ID 70022603
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse