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An essential problem in snow science is to predict the changing form of ice grains within a snow layer. Present theories are based on the idea that form changes are driven by mass diffusion induced by temperature gradients within the snow cover. This leads to the well-established theory of isothermal- and temperature-gradient metamorphism. Although diffusion theory treats mass transfer, it does not treat the influence of this mass transfer on the form—the curvature radius of the grains and bonds—directly. Empirical relations, based on observations, are additionally required to predict flat or rounded surfaces. In the following, we postulate that metamorphism, the change of ice surface curvature and size, is a process of thermodynamic optimization in which entropy production is minimized. That is, there exists an optimal surface curvature of the ice grains for a given thermodynamic state at which entropy production is stationary. This state is defined by differences in ice and air temperature and vapor pressure across the interfacial boundary layer. The optimal form corresponds to the state of least wasted work, the state of minimum entropy production. We show that temperature gradients produce a thermal non-equilibrium between the ice and air such that, depending on the temperature, flat surfaces are required to mimimize entropy production. When the temperatures of the ice and air are equal, larger curvature radii are found at low temperatures than at high temperatures. Thus, what is known as isothermal metamorphism corresponds to minimum entropy production at equilibrium temperatures, and so-called temperature-gradient metamorphism corresponds to minimum entropy production at non-equilibrium temperatures. The theory is in good agreement with general observations of crystal form development in dry seasonal alpine snow.
The Journal of Glaciology is published six times per year. It accepts submissions from any discipline related to the study of snow and ice. All articles are peer reviewed. The Journal is included in the ISI Science Citation Index.