NASA doesn't know what's making these freaky circles in the Arctic

Clay Curtis
April 24, 2018

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.

"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", adds Nathan Kurtz, a project scientist from the IceBridge mission.

NASA has been studying the Arctic and Antarctic regions of the earth to try and understand the world's ever-changing climate systems and the effects of global warming.

A six-month survey of the hemispheres utilised cutting-edge technology: NASA satellites, plane-based lidars (a surveying method which pulses light and measure reflecting pulses) and laser altimeters.

Some parts of the image remain hard to explain, though - most especially the mysterious ice circles, which are something IceBridge mission scientist John Sonntag had never seen previously.

"I don't recall seeing this sort of thing elsewhere", said scientist John Sonntag, who is a part of NASA's Operation IceBridge.

Not content to keep the bafflement in-house, or perhaps as a fishing expedition, the folks at NASA presented the photo to the space-curious public.

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.

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Competitors came up with a host of answers: The holes might be remnants of meteorites, or maybe dried up salt lakes, some said.

The mystery ice circles were located around 50 miles away from the Mackenzie River Delta in Canada, and while Sonntag's official job was to closely scrutinize ice around the Arctic Ocean, after seeing the odd holes his mission quickly became one of trying to solve how they got there in the first place.

However, as NASA have not been back to take a closer inspection of the mysterious ice holes in the Arctic Ocean, at the moment everything is mere conjecture while scientists try to work out the cause of the circles from a photograph.

Dartmouth College sea ice geophysicist Don Perovich thinks the sea ice in the picture is young. The current leading theory is that they were gnawed out by seals in need of breathing holes during journeys under the frozen surface.

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

Sonntag and his camera are no strangers to freakish frozen phenomena.

Window view of the NASA IceBridge P-3 research plane.

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