A 50 m firn core from Dome C, East Antarctica, was found to consist of coarse firn, which comprised 90 to 95% of the core, and fine firn. Coarse firn was characterized by large crystals with a vertical shape orientation near the surface, connected to nearest neighbors by relatively large necks in a structure different from closest packing. Fine firn was of higher density and consisted of smaller, more spherical crystals connected by relatively narrow necks in a more nearly closest-packed configuration.
Higher surface free energy in fine firn causes crystals and necks to grow more rapidly than in coarse firn. However, we find that coarse firn densifies more rapidly with time, contrary to the predictions of unconfined sintering models. Load-driven densification due to a power-law creep mechanism is found to account for the larger coarse-firn densification rate. However, if the exponent in the power law exceeds one, then densification rates are predicted to increase with depth due to increasing load, contrary to observed behavior. We speculate that different mechanisms may control the densification process in fine and coarse firn.