Ice crystallized below 200 K has the diffraction pattern of a faulty cubic ice, and not of the most stable hexagonal ice polymorph. The origin and structure of this faulty cubic ice, presumed to form in the atmosphere, has long been a puzzle. Here we use large-scale molecular dynamics simulations with the mW water model to investigate the crystallization of water at 180 K and elucidate the development of cubic and hexagonal features in ice as it nucleates, grows and consolidates into crystallites with characteristic dimensions of a few nanometres. The simulations indicate that the ice crystallized at 180 K contains layers of cubic ice and hexagonal ice in a ratio of approximately 2 to 1. The stacks of hexagonal ice are very short, mostly one and two layers, and their frequency does not seem to follow a regular pattern. In spite of the high fraction of hexagonal layers, the diffraction pattern of the crystals is, as in the experiments, almost identical to that of cubic ice. Stacking of cubic and hexagonal layers is observed for ice nuclei with as little as 200 water molecules, but a preference for cubic ice is already well developed in ice nuclei one order of magnitude smaller: the critical ice nuclei at 180 K contain approximately ten water molecules in their core and are already rich in cubic ice. The energies of the cubic-rich and hexagonal-rich nuclei are indistinguishable, suggesting that the enrichment in cubic ice does not have a thermodynamic origin.
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