7 Science-Approved Tips for Walking Across Ice

iStock
iStock

Unless you live in a warm climate year-round where the only ice you experience involves cubes that tumble from your refrigerator door, the issue of slipping on the slick surface presents a serious concern. After all, news segments talk of treacherous conditions where people unable to gain traction slide themselves into oblivion just crossing the street. On the work front, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2014, ice, snow, or sleet caused more than 42,000 injuries and illnesses.

And of course, there will always be viral ice-slipping videos floating around, like the one of the man who slid along the entire length of his driveway.

The very act of walking is a balancing act we take for granted. "Walking is like falling and catching yourself over and over," says Kayla Lewis, Ph.D., an assistant professor of physics at New Jersey's Monmouth University. "You lean forward and fall forward, catching yourself with your leading leg to prepare for the next step. But it's the friction between the ground and your shoes that enables you to save yourself this way; it prevents your front shoe from sliding forward and your back shoe from sliding backward."

All of this begs the question: What's the best way to walk on ice to minimize the risk of falling? To safely sashay over ice, follow the experts' advice below. Don't let their words of wisdom, you know, slip away from you.

1. MOVE SLOWLY AND STEADILY.

Clearly, instinct and common sense kicks in the moment you approach the slick surface, telling us it's virtually impossible (and not really wise) to sprint across an ice-covered driveway. Slow and easy wins the proverbial race, right?

Yes. According to Philip E. Martin, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Kinesiology at Iowa State University, minimizing forward and backward force is indeed essential when walking on ice. "What's key is trying to keep force applied to the ground more vertically so there's less force forward and backward—because that's the part that requires friction," he tells Mental Floss.

2. TAKE SHORTER STEPS.

What does reducing forward-and-backward force mean practically? Taking shorter steps. When we do so, the forces applied against the ground in forward and backwards directions are reduced. Therefore, Martin says, we're not pushing as hard and are "adapting our gait to work with the reduced friction that's available to us."

3. AVOID MELTING ICE.

Mark Fahnestock, a glaciologist and research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has been studying glaciers and ice sheets for the last couple of decades, and during that time has experienced conditions at -40°F in Alaska. He says that how slippery ice becomes can vary by temperatureso being aware of temperatures can help you figure out how easy or challenging it may be to cross ice. "It's easier to walk on ice at 0°F or -20°F," he tells Mental Floss. "Ice is much slipperier when it's really melting."

Chalk that up to a film of molecules on the surface that behaves like water, he says, which "becomes more pronounced" in warmer temperatures. However, this isn't to say you won't ever slip on ice the colder the temperature gets; he emphasizes, "It's not that it's not slippery, it's just that it's not as slippery as when it's warmer."

4. GO AROUND SLOPES AND STAIRS WHEN YOU CAN.

You should also be mindful of the surface you're about to set foot on. A flat surface is one thing, but Fahnestock says that "if it's slanted where your foot meets a driveway, for example, it's not holding your weight—rather, it's your weight that's causing your foot to move."

"Gravity is going to do its thing whether you like it or not," Martin says, especially if there's an icy slope that's in a significantly downhill direction. Unfortunately, in this circumstance, you probably won't be able to adapt your gait to prevent slipping, so it's likely it'll be a score of Ice 1, Human 0.

ice caution sign next to person who slipped on ice
iStock

Stairs can make navigating ice even more treacherous, but we know it's not always possible to avoid them. According to helpful hints for walking on ice from Iowa State University, when dealing with icy steps, be sure to use handrails, keeping your hands out of your pockets, and continue to move slowly.

5. KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR CHANGING SURFACES.

Then there are circumstances where the surface characteristics can change without us realizing it. But Martin says not to fret if you're walking on a straight, dry surface and suddenly encounter an icy patch you weren't expecting. Maximum friction force is reduced when you encounter this abrupt change, causing you to quickly alter your gait. Sure, you may slip a little since it initially throws you off guard, but "humans are pretty adaptable and recognize challenges quickly," Martin says. We pay closer attention to surface characteristics than we may consciously realize, and we adjust our stride patterns automatically.

6. WEAR THE RIGHT SHOES.

And don't forget the benefits of appropriate footwear. Martin encourages people to consider a shoe's material properties, noting that a rigid leather sole is far from ideal as it offers a significantly weaker grip compared to a rubber sole. Of course, traction-improving treads, cleats, or spikes can help too.

Scientists are studying how traction varies among consumer boots. A team of researchers at iDAPT, the research arm of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute—University Health Network, has tested and rated the slip resistance of nearly 100 boots and spikes in their WinterLab, where they study slips and falls on a floor composed entirely of ice. Testers secured into safety harnesses walk back and forth across the ice as the researchers slowly increase the angle of the floor until the tester slips. The angle at which they slip is called the "maximum achievable angle": The higher the angle, the better the slip resistance.

More than 80 percent of the boots they've tested failed to score high enough on the MAA to earn a single "snowflake" on iDAPT's three-snowflake scale, including those from popular brands like Timberland, Sorel, and Terra. The top ranked, with three snowflakes, are all Stabil spikes, which attach to your regular shoes or boot.

7. WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, WADDLE.

Consider taking an ice-walking cue from those waddling tuxedoed ice pros: Walk like a penguin. Fahnestock says shuffling helps keep your weight in a straight-down stance, allowing your feet to carry your weight carefully and minimize slipping.

The Best Place to Park at the Mall, According to Science

Diy13/iStock via Getty Images Plus
Diy13/iStock via Getty Images Plus

It’s Black Friday, and you are entering the battlefield: a mall parking lot. You’re determined to nail that doorbuster deal, and quantities are limited. The field is already full of other combatants. You must find the perfect parking spot.

Do you grab the first one you see, or drive as close to the mall as you can and hover? Or, do you choose a tactic that lies somewhere between?

Parking at the mall has long frustrated drivers and taxed the minds of traffic engineers—but after working on the problem for three years, physicists Sidney Redner of the Santa Fe Institute and Paul Krapivsky of Boston University have gotten closer to a winning strategy. “There are lots of studies of parking lots, but it’s just that they’re so complicated, you don’t get any insight into what’s actually happening,” Redner tells Mental Floss.

Redner and Krapivsky, whose work employs statistical physics to make sense of large systems, simplified the messy dynamics of a parking lot by modeling it with a one-dimensional grid of cells, each representing a parking space. They tested three simple, yet realistic, parking strategies using basic probability theory. Their model tested the following strategies to see which one resulted in least time spent walking and driving in the parking lot:

Meek Strategy: Meek drivers park in the first open space they see, however distant it is from the mall. As a result, they often spend the most time walking to and from the mall.

Prudent Strategy: Prudent drivers look for the first open spot but then keep driving toward the mall. They continue to drive until they see a parked car and then park in the best open spot between that first open spot and that first parked car. There may be a block of open spaces between the first open space and the first parked car. From that block of open spaces, they choose the one closest to the mall.

Optimistic Strategy: Optimistic drivers drive as close to the mall as possible and look for a parking space close to the entrance. If they see one, they grab it. If there are none, they backtrack and choose the first open space they see. Optimistic drivers probably spend the most time driving and the least time walking. In the worst-case scenario, they end up parking back where a meek driver would have parked.

Naturally cautious drivers are more likely to default to the meek mode, while aggressive drivers often use the optimistic strategy, well, aggressively. And most drivers have tried something like the prudent method.

So, which is your best bet in a crowded mall parking lot this holiday season?

In the experiments, the prudent strategy fared best, followed closely by the optimistic strategy. The meek strategy finished a distant third (“It’s hard to comprehend just how bad it is,” says Krapivsky, a self-described meek driver).

And even better: The more crowded the lot, the better the prudent strategy works, he adds.

One clear takeaway from the study is that meek drivers may want to ramp up their parking skills before going to the mall. “You don't want to park on the very outskirts of the lot, like a mile away from the stores. You want to go to the first place there’s an open spot and park somewhere in that first open area,” Redner says. They published their findings in the Journal of Statistical Mechanics [PDF].

The researchers say this is the best of the strategies they tested, but it has its limitations. It does not take into consideration competition among a sea of drivers all looking for parking spaces at the same time, and it doesn’t include (perhaps optimistically) the psychological aspects of operating a vehicle. “We are not rational when we are driving,” Krapivsky tells Mental Floss.

The researchers’ one-dimensional grid model also assumed that there would be one car at a time entering the lot through one entrance, unlike messier lots in the real world, where many cars enter from a multitude of entrances.

The optimal parking strategy, one that would best all others every time, has yet to be found. In their research, though, Redner and Krapivsky are homing in on one that integrates the more complicated aspects of parking.

For now, science says prudence is a virtue in the parking lot. And while the meek might inherit the Earth, they certainly won’t find the best parking space at the mall.

'Lost Species' of Tiny, Rabbit-Sized Deer Photographed in Vietnam for the First Time in 30 Years

Global Wildlife Conservation
Global Wildlife Conservation

The silver-backed chevrotain, also called the Vietnamese mouse-deer, is elusive. It's so elusive that scientists had feared it was extinct after none had been photographed for decades. But as The Washington Post reports, the first images taken of the mammal in nearly 30 years prove that the species is still alive in the woods of Vietnam.

No larger than small dogs, chevrotains are the tiniest ungulates, or hoofed animals, on Earth. They have vampire-like fangs and skinny legs that support their bodies. Silver-backed chevrotains are characterized by the silver sheen of their tawny coat.

The tiny population native to Vietnam has been devastated by poachers in recent decades. That, and the animal's natural shyness, make it incredibly difficult to study. Before this most recent sighting, the last time scientists had recorded one was in 1990.

Global Wildlife Conservation, the Southern Institute of Ecology, and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research teamed up in hopes of documenting the lost species. Researchers interviewed residents and government forest rangers in the Vietnamese city of Nha Trang about the silver-backed chevrotain, looking for tips on where to find one. Residents said that while populations had been hit hard by hunting, the animals were still around.

Based on this local ecological knowledge, scientists set up three camera traps in the Vietnamese woods. In just five months, they captured 275 photographs of the little mouse-deer. They then installed 29 additional cameras and snapped 1881 new images in that same length of time.

“For so long this species has seemingly only existed as part of our imagination," Global Wildlife Conservation associate conservation scientist An Nguyen said in a statement. "Discovering that it is, indeed, still out there, is the first step in ensuring we don’t lose it again, and we’re moving quickly now to figure out how best to protect it.”

Now that a silver-backed chevrotain population has been located, researchers plan to conduct the first-ever comprehensive survey of the species. Once the data is collected, it will be used to build a plan for the species' survival.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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