Curious Circles in Arctic Sea Ice

NASA’s Operation IceBridge—the airborne mission flown annually over both polar regions—is now in its tenth year making flights over the Arctic. That’s a lot of flight hours spent mapping the region’s land ice and sea ice. But on April 14, 2018, IceBridge mission scientist John Sonntag spotted something he had never seen before.

Sonntag snapped this photograph from the window of the P-3 research plane while flying over the eastern Beaufort Sea. At the time, the aircraft’s location was 69.71° North and 138.22° West, about 50 miles northwest of Canada’s Mackenzie River Delta. “We saw these sorta-circular features only for a few minutes today,” Sonntag wrote from the field. “I don’t recall seeing this sort of thing elsewhere.”

The features are more of a curiosity than anything else. The main purpose of the flight that day was to make observations of sea ice in an area that lacked coverage by the mission prior to 2013. Still, the image sparked a fair amount of intrigue, so we set out to see what we could learn. That’s not always easy based on a photograph or satellite image alone, so the following ideas are speculation.

Some aspects of the image are easy to explain. The sea ice here is clearly young ice growing within what was once a long, linear area of open water, or lead. “The ice is likely thin, soft, and mushy and somewhat pliable,” said Don Perovich, a sea ice geophysicist at Dartmouth College. “This can be seen in the wave-like features in front of the middle ‘amoeba.’”

Perovich goes on to note that there might be a general left to right motion of the new ice as evidenced by the finger rafting on the right side of the image. Finger rafting occurs when two floes of thin ice collide. As a result of the collision, blocks of ice slide above and below each other in a pattern that resembles a zipper or interlocking fingers. (You can see another example in a photograph acquired in November 2017.)

“It’s definitely an area of thin ice, as you can see finger rafting near the holes and the color is gray enough to indicate little snow cover,” said IceBridge project scientist Nathan Kurtz. “I’m not sure what kind of dynamics could lead to the semi-circle shaped features surrounding the holes. I have never seen anything like that before.”

Indeed, the holes are difficult to explain. One thought is that they have a mammalian origin: the holes may have been gnawed out by seals to create an open area in the ice through which they can surface to breathe. The holes appear similar to photographs of breathing holes created by ring seals and by harp seals.

“The encircling features may be due to waves of water washing out over the snow and ice when the seals surface,” said Walt Meier, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “Or it could be a sort of drainage feature that results from when the hole is made in the ice.”

Chris Polashenski, a sea ice scientist at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, said he has seen features like this before, but does not have a solid explanation for them. He agrees that breathing holes for seals is one possibility; equally plausible is that the holes were caused by convection.

“This is in pretty shallow water generally, so there is every chance this is just ‘warm springs’ or seeps of ground water flowing from the mountains inland that make their presence known in this particular area,” said Chris Shuman, a University of Maryland at Baltimore County glaciologist based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “The other possibility is that warmer water from Beaufort currents or out of the Mackenzie River is finding its way to the surface due to interacting with the bathymetry, just the way some polynyas form.”

NASA photograph by John Sonntag/Operation IceBridge.

135 thoughts on “Curious Circles in Arctic Sea Ice

      • Chimp…I prefer to think of you as a Grammar Fascist, rather than a grammar ‘nazi’…with all its overtones of

      • Charles,
        I guess I should thank you for that distinction, since generic fascist is perhaps less pejorative than out and out N@zi.
        The thing is though, that all fascism is also an outgrowth of socialism. Even Phalangism, as in Spain (Falange, ie national syndicalist clerical fascism), despite its Catholic connection, is still statist, if not overtly socialist. Mussolini started out as a socialist, an aberration inherited from his dad, who named him in honor of Benito Juarez, so admired by the statist Abraham Lincoln, in whose invading army served so many foreign and even native communists.

      • The first time she said, “further”, she meant “farther”. The second time, she used “further” correctly. Other than that, good grammar as well as science.
        –The Grammar N@zi

      • Me, too. I’m just irritated that after witnessing that phenomena in a friend’s pool that I never asked the questions – even in my mind. I just marveled… and no more.

      • Phil,
        Glad to see that I’m not the only English language N@zi goose stepping around here.
        Of course Russians also use the Prussian parade march.

      • JD,
        They aren’t.
        Farther refers to distance. Further applies when something other than physical distance is extended.

      • Hotscot,
        The English of Lowland Scotland is of ancient and hono(u)rable lineage.
        Some say that Scots is not a dialect but a language, as distinct from Sassenach English as Danish or Norwegian is from Swedish. Not sure I’d go that far, but it is a distinctive dialect, the most divergent as being the most physically distant, of the Angle version of Anglo-Saxon. It descends from the “Anglish” of Northumbria and still shares characteristics with northern English dialects and accents.
        As you may know, the Angles from the Baltic side of Schleswig-Holstein settled eastern England and SE Scotland, while the Saxons from the North Sea coast of Germany invaded Britain via the Thames and rivers of southern England, except for Kent, occupied by the Jutes from Jutland.
        Hence East Anglia, Essex (East Saxons), Middlesex (self explanatory), Sussex (South Saxons) and Wessex (West Saxons). Mercia in the Midlands and Northumbria in the NE were also colonized by Angles. Bede says that the whole population of old, continental Anglia immigrated to Britain. Can’t blame them, considering climatic deterioration during the Dark Ages Cold Period. Climate refugee boat people.

    • Brilliant! I’ve played this game before but never realised until today that it was a half ring and the vortices were connected! Wild!

      • And even more interesting is that dolphins are able to steer the bubble ring using pressure waves created in their melon, an organ located in their head that focuses acoustic waves for echolocation.

  1. My first thought was that they are just nascent polynyas.
    Yet on reading the text the ‘seals breaking the ice’ idea seems very plausible.

      • True. This leads to my kid sister’s joke:
        Q – How do you catch a polar bear?
        A – You sprinkle peas around an ice hole. When the polar bear comes along and stoops to take a pea, you kick him in the ice hole.
        Rather than speculating, I would suggest that these scientists ask an Eskimo. They have probably seen something similar. example:

        Like seals, walrus need to make holes in the ice in order to breathe and to come out on top of the ice. These holes are known as iniit, and often consist of the aglu (breathing hole) of a seal that the walrus has simply enlarged (IOHP 093). When the ice is thin, the walrus breaks through using only the strength of its back to lift and shatter it; with thicker ice, the animal must use its tusks to pierce through the frozen layer. Each of these types of holes has its own name. Furthermore, while a walrus is out on the ice, the hole or lead it came up through sometimes freezes over. In this case, it must crawl across the ice to the floe-edge. The tracks left by the slithering walrus are then known as pisungniit. link

        The one thing I would say for Ian Stirling is that he and his crew would work with the Eskimos. (Yes, I’m deliberately being politically incorrect by calling them Eskimos.)

      • Commie,
        Only in Greenland or Canada would you be un-PC. There the Eskimo people are indeed Inuit, although there are also the Innu of Quebec and Labrador.
        In the US and Russia, however, we have the Inupiat, and yet further remotely related, the Yupik. Since there is no Eskimo word for Eskimo, we’re stuck with Eskimo.

      • commieBob
        While in the Navy one of the the Electronics Technicians was an Eskimo and was proud to be called an Eskimo. Got POd f you called him a Native American or Indian. Strange what has happened to people over the last 40-50 years with their Faux PC. He was one of the better technicians.

  2. It’s just a family of Yeti doing some ice fishing. Their white fur makes them hard to detect.

    • That made me think. These holes are in an area of new ice. When ice forms in salt water the ice itself is fresh water and the salt concentration increases in the water under the new ice. Generally, the saltier water sinks away from the surface but perhaps in shallow water it is limited in how deep it can go and creates areas of saturation that degrade spots on the surface.
      An overly complex solution perhaps, but it’s that or aliens. Or, of course, GLOBAL WARMING! DA, DA, DA!!!

  3. We get drain holes in all the larger lakes in Wisconsin. Once the ice gets any accumulation of water (or rain) on the surface, a tiny hole may become 20 ft in diameter as the water drains thru it. A common hazard for snowmobiles and ice boaters.

  4. They are back with their friends,holey cats…
    The Thing from Another World -.FF to 0:48

      • Carpenter’s was a ripoff. But the original was B/W so that sux, right ? Millenials…

        Well, isn’t that…special. I guess a person can’t have an opinion on WUWT without being attacked.
        The “Thing from Another World” (1951) was a rather loose adaptation and Carpenter’s “ripoff” was considered a more faithful telling of John Cambell’s “Who Goes There…” (1938). The 2011 version was the prequel to John Carpenter’s version.
        Now, I don’t have any idea what “Millenials” have to do with anything but if you are referring to me, I’m sure my granddaughter (pregnant with her first child) would get a laugh out of her grandfather being referred to as a “Millenial”.

    • One of my favorites. James Arness in the title role. The story IIRR was “Who Goes There?”

  5. Shouldn’t this article have a citation? Anthony takes the byline as if he wrote it himself. This seems to be a recurrent problem on WUWT, leaving the site open to accusations of plagiarism. (You missed this: “NASA photograph by John Sonntag/Operation IceBridge.”) MOD
    Interesting phenomenon and cool photo.

      • Not sufficient citation for you?
        Only one absolute fool in this exchange, and not I, who provided the citation.

      • @Chimp – that was to our new troll, not you! The indents on the threads here make it sometimes hard to figure out who’s saying what to whom. Forgot to use the “@” this go-round, my apologies. (Although the troll knows it is a troll…)
        Yes, the photo was also properly cited for the person (Sonntag) who took it. The article was properly cited as coming from Operation Icebridge.

    • It’s not just the photo, it’s the whole article.
      Writing Observer,
      “Back to troll school for you, until you can learn to not make an absolute fool of yourself.”
      This is an intellectual property issue. Sorry if it’s above your head.
      “NASA’s Operation Icebridge” is just the beginning of a sentence, not a citation. There is no indication I can find that the whole article was written by someone else, directly copied from another site..
      It’s not a big deal, but Anthony’s name is on the byline, and that could constitute plagiarism. I’m not saying it’s intentional, and I don’t much care, but someone might. I dunno, perhaps I’m being old-fashioned, but I wouldn’t want someone taking credit for my writing.

      • You really are quite full of yourself. Article is credited to source, photo is credited to source, you are the only thing here not credited to source. We know your source anyhow, it is clearly delineated every time you comment.

    • Second that request.
      Could be from bowhead whale flatulence, a mighty force in a fluid medium striking a solid phase medium.

  6. It’s young, drunk adolescents in boats seeking more challenging experiences. Crop circles are SO last century.

  7. I can explain some of what is going on. I worked as a geologist in the Arctic for many years. The ice around the islands is/are frozen to the shore. The shore is permafrost so it stays frozen. The ice away from the islands is starting to change with approaching spring. It is on the way to “candling”. So what will happen is that the ice develops voids as it warms and so begins to float higher than the ice pinned to the shore. Typically any water on the upper surface of the ice drains down through the now porous ice. This is the ideal time for delivery of supplies as the high floating ice is beautifully dry. It can be a bugger in late spring to get your cargo off the ice to the shore as there is usually a ring of water on the lower ice along the shore and snow machines can only plane for so far. In lakes which are protected from wind the ice will get to the point where it is completely candled such that you can hit it and the individual candles topple over like dominoes making a distinct tinkling sound. That will happen in May.
    The wave like features are probably due to persistent wind action.
    Not much to do with AGW but the benefit of my experience. Most scientists don’t have budgets to be in the arctic long enough to experience such so are relatively clueless. Same goes for the people who study caribou migration but that is another story.
    I enjoy this site. It is the one place where judgements are not rendered. As Sgt Joe Friday used to say on a famous TV program … “Nothing but the facts Mam”.

  8. “Sonntag wrote from the field. “I don’t recall seeing this sort of thing elsewhere.”

    How odd!?
    Snow drifts, ice/snow windrows and refrozen ice around dark objects in water are found anywhere ponds, pools, lakes, streams and even rivers freeze over during winter.
    When an alleged experienced ice expert makes such a silly claim, one suspects the words were written before they got on the plane.
    Someone ordered an alarmist statement, easily filled.

  9. Seen very similar formations on a lake before… The holes were originally bigger in a thin layer of slushy-ice. Some wind action creates a crust around the edges (at least in the case of the lake, I could see it in action), then the hole begins to freeze up when the wind dies down. On the lake I decided the small inner hole was closing slower because of some oil-like substance it was concentrating on the surface as it froze (likely from nearby docks where boats are maintained). These arctic ones look really similar, but likely bigger.
    We don’t have seals in our southern fresh water lakes (at least I haven’t seen any, but they might have since migrated there when the global warming confused them!) so I can’t compare the reason for the center not freezing in the arctic, likely the “Seals” explanation makes sense if they are found in this area.
    Love the pictures. Love this site. Only here do I get really interesting material every day!

    • The question, Robert of Texas, is this: are there any SEALS at NAS Corpus Christi? They could have made those holes you refer to.

  10. No possibility it was a broken up meteorite? It would 3xplaine the rim features. I don’t see a seal making such a powerful wash. What scale are these. A scientist on such a mission isn’t just looking out the window surely. Boy scouts could be engaged for that simple task.

  11. I’m guessing it’s a lot of small fish stirring up the water enough to keep it from freezing.

    • Alien crop circles, but in ice. I know they aren’t round, but that’s because it was done by alien children. Before they learn to colour inside the lines.

    • They are given without scale to be multipurpose. They can be exaggerated if Global Warming is to be invoked (please be sure to determine some aspect of “badness”,real or imagined). If they are deemed to be beneficial, they can be minimized to help illustrate the obvious fact that they are shrinking and probably the last of what was once a common phenomena.

  12. What ever they are they were deformed as the sea ice softened. The they have the profiles of ice pushed up, and the hole in the center, then softened to leave those odd formations
    If spotted earlier before the ice went mushy, it would be clear what they were

  13. Nope. Nope. Nope. You all have it all wrong.
    Picasso did not die. He just moved to the Arctic circle. Mushy ice has enlarged his scope of creativity.
    Picasso Lives!!!!

    • That sure seems tantalizing. The sub exercise was March 10, and the picture above is dated April 14. Is that consistent with these pictures?

  14. I have seen the same thing in my back yard 5 acre pond and the cause of these “holes” are not from mammals from under the ice or walking around, rather caused by additional water into a somewhat closed system making mini-gysers as pressure relief holes. These events occur when there is a rapid snow melt and the additional water cannot escape fast enough, raising the ice sheet slightly and the pressure relief holes occur. After the pressure is relieved, the water is refrozen, mostly at night and the holes leave their uplift, volcano style. After another night, the melted water on the surface, retreats to the lake via the holes. The next day or so, the holes are frozen over and smoothed. The holes are pressure relief valves that nature makes, and, we sometimes observe.

    • Exactly so, the is the place where in previous years there was anomalous melting causing an early hole in the ice there. A volcano or lava vent on the sea floor is indicated there.

  15. Or it could be the signature of a heat plume of rising warm water from underwater volcano . With out a current to disturb it , It would make a circular pattern on the surface .

  16. Lets see 2013 no ice. 2014 to 2018 ice. I thought the ice is going away due to gobal warming. Guess not

  17. I know that areas of the Beaufort Sea have mud geysers where water temperatures rise well above freezing. There are pingoes in the area as well.

  18. They look like the spot in the ice just above the spring in the lake on my farm after a snowfall.

  19. These appear to be “strudel scour holes” which are quite common in the Beaufort Sea on the USA side in shallow arctic waters. In the springtime, fresh water from rivers will often flow out over the sea ice and form fresh water ponds above the sea ice. Holes in the ice, occurring naturally or made by mammals, provide a conduit for the fresh water to drain through the ice (fresh water being denser than seawater). The fresh water drains and sometimes creates a whirlpool below the sea ice. The holes naturally enlarge and often large scours occur on the sea bottom below the whirlpools.

  20. What are the actual diameters of these circles? The article doesn’t say. Are they two meters – or ten – or 30 – or more?

  21. These types of features are visible from aircraft overflying hot springs during winter in Alaska. Too bad he didn’t have an IR camera. That would have eliminated some speculation.

    • That thought occurred to me, what kind of “research” aircraft does not have multiple types of cameras and sensors. Kinda odd.

      • The type popular with Climate Experts today. They only carry the equipment necessary to document their conclusion. Just like FBI Director Comey writing the exoneration memo months before interviewing Secretary Clinton.

  22. Nothing unusual, just how sea ice freezes – this looks like something stopped the process (there have been some warm periods recently, right?) and then continued.

  23. The wave-like features are just the pack ice compressing a bit, where it’s frozen over but not solidified. Frozen seawater is much weaker than fresh water ice – it takes 6 inches of frozen seawater to support a man’t weight, but you don’t want to stand in one spot for too long.

  24. The article is not credited, only the photo is, as Kristi says there’s no indication that the article wasn’t written for WUWT. In fact the only reference to the original article is by Kristi.

Comments are closed.