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Can Water Float on Water?

Difficulty
Time Required Very Short (≤ 1 day)
Prerequisites None
Material Availability Readily available
Cost Low ($20 - $50)
Safety No issues

Abstract

Of course it can, you say: ice is water and ice floats! And you're right. But we're talking about water in the liquid phase (the title reads better without getting overly specific). So how about it? Can liquid water float on water? Check out this project to find out.

Objective

The goal of this project is to investigate what happens to layers of water with different densities. You will investigate density differences caused by both temperature and salinity.

Credits

Andrew Olson, Ph.D. and Sandra Slutz, Ph.D., Science Buddies

Sources

Cite This Page

MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Can Water Float on Water?" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 30 June 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2014 <http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/OceanSci_p002.shtml>

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2014, June 30). Can Water Float on Water?. Retrieved October 20, 2014 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/OceanSci_p002.shtml

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Last edit date: 2014-06-30

Introduction

Water covers 70% of Earth's surface. Seen from space, the blue of the oceans and the white of clouds are the dominant visual features. The water of the oceans is not uniform. Climatic processes create large-scale differences in ocean water temperature and salinity, illustrated in the first two maps, below. As you might expect, ocean waters near the equator tend to be warmer than those at higher latitudes. The first map shows sea surface temperature, coded in color (see legend).



Map of sea surface temperature.
Color-coded map of sea surface temperature.


The second map shows global differences in ocean surface salinity (dissolved salt concentration). At the surface, in general salinity is higher in equatorial regions and lower at the high latitudes.



Map of sea surface salinity.
Color-coded map of sea surface salinity in parts per thousand (ppt or 0/00).


What goes on at the ocean surface does not tell the whole story. The ocean has depth, too. In the deep ocean, huge masses of water circulate around the globe, driven by differences in temperature and salinity. This is called the thermohaline circulation, sometimes also known as the global conveyor belt. Differences in temperature and salinity cause differences in ocean water density. As water warms, it expands, decreasing density. As salt concentration rises, density increases, because the salt molecules can occupy spaces between the water molecules. Denser water sinks beneath water that is less dense. As denser water sinks, water must rise somewhere to replace it. As you are doing your background research for this project, you should read up on how the thermohaline circulation works.

In this project, you will do experiments to see what happens when layers of water at different densities are brought together. You'll create your two "layers" in plastic or glass bottles, coloring them with different food colors to tell them apart. Then, you'll bring the two layers together by flipping one bottle over on top of the other (we'll tell you how to do it without spilling half the bottle!). You can see for yourself if water can float on water.

Terms and Concepts

To do this project, you should do research that enables you to understand the following terms and concepts:

  • Salinity
  • Density
  • Hydrometer
  • Thermohaline circulation
  • Estuary
Questions
  • How does the density of water change as a function of temperature?
  • How does the density of water change as a function of dissolved salt?
  • In nature where are some common places that waters with different temperatures meet? How about places where waters with different salinities meet?

Bibliography

Materials and Equipment

A project kit containing most of the items needed for this science project is available for purchase from AquaPhoenix Education. Alternatively, you can gather the materials yourself using this shopping list:

  • Clear bottles with equal sized opening (4); 16 ounce (oz) is a good size. Bottles must have caps. For safety: sturdy plastic bottles work better than glass.
  • Permanent marker
  • Laminated index or business card, (or stiff plastic of similar thickness)
  • Table salt (150 grams [g])
  • Containers for mixing and pouring solutions (2); should have larger capacity than bottles. Containers that can hold 1 liter of water work well.
  • Stirring spoon or stirring rod
  • Teaspoon measuring spoon
  • Food coloring (at least 2 different colors)
  • Stopwatch
  • Hot and cold tap water
  • Lab notebook
  • Optional: funnel (1)
  • Optional: hydrometer and 250 ml graduated cylinder
  • Optional: thermometer. Range of at least 0-30°C
  • Optional: towels for cleaning up spills
  • Optional: a volunteer to help write down your observations

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Experimental Procedure

Salinity and Mixing

Tip: Before you start your experiment skip down to step 8 below and practice the bottle flipping technique. This will make your experiment go much more smoothly!

  1. You'll need to keep track of which containers have salt added and which ones do not, so start by labeling your containers while everything is still dry. With the permanent marker label one mixing container and one bottle "+ salt." Label the other mixing container and one bottle "fresh."
  2. Make your ocean water by adding salt and water to the "+ salt" mixing container. How much salt and water? You decide! Here are some things to think about:
    1. The salinity map in the Introduction shows that deep ocean salinity ranges from 32 to 37.5 parts per thousand (ppt or 0/00). As an example, 32 ppt would mean 32 g of salt per 1000 g (1 liter) of seawater. You want your ocean water for this experiment to be somewhere in the 32 - 37.5 ppt salinity range to mimic ocean water.
    2. 1 teaspoon (tsp) of table salt weighs approximately 6 g.
    3. So, if you are using 1 liter containers you can add 6 tsp of salt for a total of 36 g of salt (6 tsp x 6 g per tsp =36 g), fill the containers to the top with water (32 oz is approximately 1 liter or 1000 g), mix until all the salt is dissolved and you'll have an salt solution that is approximately 36 ppt.
  3. Add tap water to the "fresh" mixing container.
  4. Optional: if you have a hydrometer, measure the density of each solution.
    1. Fill the graduated cylinder with water from the "fresh" mixing container. Put the hydrometer in, push it gently and wait until it stops bobbing up and down. Read the number on the hydrometer at the surface of the water. See Figure 1 below for details. Record the density in your lab notebook.
    2. Wipe the outside of the hydrometer dry between measurements so that you don't transfer one solution to the other. Also shake extra water out of the graduated cylinder.
    3. Repeat step 4a with the salt solution.


how to read a hydrometer
Ocean Science science project
Figure 1. The solution may come up the sides of the hydrometer slightly. If so, take the numerical reading where the solution is level across the hydrometer (dashed line in this diagram) and not where the solution rides up the sides (Qlaz, 2008; Wikimedia Commons).


  1. Add 5 drops of food coloring to each container. Use one color for "+ salt" and a contrasting color for "fresh." For example, red and blue. Note which is which in your lab notebook. (You'll want your notebook handy, but off to the side in case of spills.)
  2. Fill a "+ salt" bottle completely full with colored salt water.
  3. Fill a "fresh" bottle completely full of colored fresh water.
  4. Now comes the tricky part. You are going to invert (turn upside down) one bottle and put it on top of the other, without spilling. It doesn't matter which one you choose to flip over first, because you'll be doing the experiment both ways. It is a good idea to practice this maneuver first with plain tap water until you get the hang of it, so you don't waste your solutions. Here's how:
    1. Use the laminated card (or plastic) to cover the top of the bottle you're going to invert.
    2. Hold the bottle near the base with one hand while holding the card against the opening with two fingers of the other hand.
    3. Slowly and carefully flip the bottle over, keeping the card pressed tightly against the opening. Try not to squeeze the plastic bottle as you do this, since squeezing will push water out of the bottle. Holding near the bottom of the bottle where it is stiffer will help.
    4. Place the inverted bottle on top of the other bottle (the card remains in place, so it is between the openings of the two bottles). See Figure 2 below.
    5. Line up the two bottles so that the inverted bottle is balanced on top.
    6. Note the time, and then carefully slide the card out from between the two bottles.
    7. With practice, you'll be able to do this without spilling more than a few drops.


how to invert one bottle on top of another
Ocean Science science project
Figure 2. Put the laminated card on top of the bottle you are going to invert (left panel). While holding the card tightly in place slowly flip the bottle and place it directly on top of the other bottle (right panel). Once the two bottles are lined up carefully slide out the laminated card and start your observations.


  1. Observe what happens to the two solutions. Write your observations in your lab notebook. (This is where a volunteer is useful. If you find it necessary to hold your bottles stable dictate your observations to the volunteer and he or she can write them down for you). Remember to the note the time as you make your observations. Make an observation every minute for at least 10 minutes. Here are some things to look for:
    1. Do you see any evidence of mixing (e.g., color changes, or schlieren lines)? Note: schlieren lines are wavy lines caused by changes in the index of refraction of the solution. Since the two solutions have different densities, they will also have different indices of refraction. Where the two solutions mix, schlieren lines may be apparent. You may have seen schlieren lines before on a hot summer day in the air over hot asphalt pavement. In this case the lines are the result of rising hot air mixing with cooler air above.
    2. How does the color of solution in each bottle compare to the original color?
    3. Is the color uniform throughout each bottle?
    4. Note anything else of interest.
  2. Optional: if you have a hydrometer, measure the density of the water in each bottle at the conclusion of the experiment.
  3. Confirm your results by repeating the experiment. You should perform at least three trials with salt water in the top bottle and fresh water in the bottom bottle, and at least three trials with fresh water in the top bottle and salt water in the bottom bottle.

Temperature and Mixing

  1. In the second experiment you'll investigate the effect of water temperature on mixing. This time, you'll use fresh water in both bottles. Label your mixing containers "hot" and "cold."
  2. Add hot tap water to one container, and cold tap water to the other. (Note: since you are bound to spill some water, make sure that the "hot" water is not so hot that it would scald.)
  3. Optional: if you have a thermometer, measure the temperature of each solution. Rinse off the thermometer and wipe the outside dry between measurements so that you don't transfer one solution to the other. You can also measure the density of each solution with a hydrometer, if you have one.
  4. Add about 5 drops of food coloring to each container. Use one color for "hot" and a contrasting color for "cold." For example, blue and yellow. Note which is which in your lab notebook. (You'll want your notebook handy, but off to the side in case of spills.)
  5. Completely fill a "hot" bottle with colored hot water.
  6. Completely fill a "cold" bottle with colored cold water.
  7. Follow the instructions above (step 8 in Salinity and Mixing) for inverting one bottle over the other.
  8. As before (step 9 in Salinity and Mixing), observe what happens to the two solutions. Write your observations in your lab notebook. Remember to the note the time as you make your observations.
  9. Optional: if you have a thermometer, measure the temperature of the water in each bottle at the conclusion of the experiment. Measure the density of the solution in each bottle if you have a hydrometer.
  10. Confirm your results by repeating the experiment. You should perform at least three trials with hot water in the top bottle and cold water in the bottom bottle, and at least three trials with cold water in the top bottle and hot water in the bottom bottle.

For your presentation, think about how your results relate to mixing of ocean water when currents carrying water at different temperatures or salinities meet. Alternatively, you might want to try relating your results to estuaries, where fresh water flowing from streams and rivers meets the ocean and its tides.

Troubleshooting

For troubleshooting tips, please read our FAQ: Can Water Float on Water?.

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Variations

  • Try different colors (e.g., lighter color for denser fluid and vice versa). You may notice fluid movements that you missed previously.
  • Try varying the salt concentration. For example, if you cut the amount of added salt in half, is mixing time affected? What do you think will happen?
  • Try intermediate temperatures. What do you think will happen to mixing time?
  • What do you think would happen if you tried warm salt water over cold fresh water?
  • Try different temperatures of salt water. To make sure that the salt concentration is equal, start with a single salt water solution (make enough to more than fill two bottles). Split the solution in half. Add dye to each half. Chill one of the solutions in a tightly-covered container in the refrigerator or freezer. Warm the other solution on the stove using very low heat. The solution should not become too hot to touch. Keep it covered so you don't lose water vapor, which would increase the salt concentration in the remaining solution.
  • For a different way of looking at the density of salt water, check out the Science Buddies project: How Salty Does the Sea Have to Be for an Egg to Float?

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

If you are having trouble with this project, please read the FAQ below. You may find the answer to your question.
Q: Flipping one bottle on top of the other seems complicated. Will my results be affected if I just pour the water from one bottle to another using a funnel?
A: If you just pour the water from one bottle to the other you will not be mimicking what happens in the oceans and your experiment will not work as intended. By flipping one fully-filled bottle on top of the other fully-filled bottle, the liquid solutions (salty and fresh, or cool and warm) can gently mix together. This mixing is done through thermohaline circulation, as discussed in the Introduction. However, if one solution is poured into the other using a funnel, or even by gently pouring, then rapid turbulent mixing will likely occur and make it difficult to observe any mixing caused by thermohaline circulation. The flip technique can be tricky but it is important to do, so it is recommended to keep practicing. Just keep practicing and you'll get the hang of it!

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The Ask an Expert Forum is intended to be a place where students can go to find answers to science questions that they have been unable to find using other resources. If you have specific questions about your science fair project or science fair, our team of volunteer scientists can help. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions, offer guidance, and help you troubleshoot.

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