Remote-Sensing Observations in the Arctic Offer New Insights Into Ice Particles

Six years of radar data from the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility site in Utqiaġvik, Alaska provide important details on how secondary ice particles form in Arctic clouds.

Image credit: DOE ARM user facility
Data collected at the Department of Energy's (DOE) Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) atmospheric observatory in Alaska, indicate that shattering drizzle droplets play a major role in the formation of "secondary" ice in mixed-phase clouds.

The Science

Atmospheric and climate scientists have long sought to understand the details of processes involved in how ice particles form in clouds. The number and size of ice particles in a cloud is important to the cloud’s lifetime, how it forms rain, and its impact on the Earth’s energy budget. However, scientists do not understand complicated ice formation as well as they understand less complex, water drop formation. Mixed-phase clouds, in which ice and water particles both exist at the same time, are particularly complex. This study used six years of radar data from Alaska to study ice formation events in mixed-phase clouds.

The Impact

One type of ice formation is “secondary ice” production. This refers to ice particles that are created in clouds from already existing cloud particles. The data in this study showed that secondary ice events are more likely to occur in the presence of drizzle droplets. Drizzle droplets are smaller than raindrops but larger than cloud droplets. The secondary ice production is likely due to drizzle droplet freezing and then shattering. These surprising results show that drizzle shattering is more important to secondary ice formation than previously realized from laboratory data. The team observed that when secondary ice events occur, they can increase the number of ice particles in a cloud by a factor of 1,000. These results provide critical data for improving simulations of mixed phase clouds in climate and earth system models.


Researchers used the rich information content of multiyear, dual-polarization, radar Doppler spectra observations made at DOE’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement user facility site in Utqiaġvik, Alaska to obtain a robust, statistical understanding of secondary ice production. The scientists used detailed radar spectra data, which provide information on particle shape, type, and fall velocity. They identified the presence of “rimer” particles (falling ice particles on which new ice may form and break off) and drizzle droplets (large liquid droplets).

In the presence of rimer particles alone, the data show fairly low ice multiplication within slightly supercooled clouds. This result suggests limited efficacy of the well-known rime-splintering or Hallet-Mossop process. However, the results show strong dependence of secondary ice production on increasingly large drizzle droplets, suggesting that the lesser-studied freezing fragmentation process is very efficient in these clouds. Cases with the presence of both fast rimer particles and drizzle drops had slightly greater secondary ice production over those with drizzle alone. The results indicate that ice number concentration can be enhanced by as much as 1,000 times during secondary ice production events. Although secondary ice production was observed to occur less than 10 percent of the time during the 6-year period in the study, it can have a significant effect on ice number concentration within a local region once it does occur.


Edward Luke
Brookhaven National Laboratory

Andrew Vogelmann
Brookhaven National Laboratory


Four of the researchers were supported by the DOE Office of Science, Atmospheric System Research (ASR) program. One of the researchers was supported by the ASR program and by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Physical Sciences Laboratory. Data were obtained from the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) facility, a DOE Office of Science user facility.


Luke, E.P., et al., New insights into ice multiplication using remote-sensing observations of slightly supercooled mixed-phase clouds in the Arctic. Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. 118 (2021). [DOI:10.1073/pnas.2021387118]

Related Links

Explosive Origins of ‘Secondary’ Ice and Snow, Brookhaven National Laboratory press release

Highlight Categories

Program: BER , CESD

Performer: DOE Laboratory , SC User Facilities , BER User Facilities , ARM

Additional: Collaborations , Non-DOE Interagency Collaboration