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Curious holes in Arctic sea ice

Warming seawater might be the culprit, or seals might have gnawed the holes. For now, the strange circular holes in Arctic sea ice, photographed earlier this month, are mysterious.

View larger. | Scientist John Sonntag with NASA’s Operation IceBridge snapped this photograph from the window of the P-3 research plane while flying over the Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort Sea on April 14, 2018. Image via NASA Earth Observatory.

NASA’s Operation IceBridge has been making yearly flights over the Arctic (and also yearly flights over the Antarctic) for 10 years, trying to use the most sophisticated possible imaging techniques on the North and South Poles, hoping to understand more about these parts of our planet. Mission scientist John Sonntag said he’d never seen circles in Arctic sea ice quite like these. He photographed them from the window of a P-3 research plane while flying over the eastern Beaufort Sea. At the time, the aircraft’s location was 69.71 degrees North and 138.22 degrees West, about 50 miles (75 km) northwest of Canada’s Mackenzie River Delta. Sonntag wrote from the field:

We saw these sorta-circular features only for a few minutes today. I don’t recall seeing this sort of thing elsewhere.

NASA published the photo as its April 2018 Puzzler and said, in the Puzzler’s answer on April 21:

The features are more of a curiosity than anything else.

But, as for explanations, there were none that scientists agreed upon. In fact, Operation IceBridge scientists and others at NASA still aren’t sure what caused the holes. IceBridge project scientist Nathan Kurtz said:

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. 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.

NASA said warming seawater, melting the ice, might be the culprit. Or seals might have gnawed the holes to create an open area in the ice through which they can surface to breathe. For now … it’s a mystery.

Read more about this photo from NASA Earth Observatory

Bottom line: Scientists aren’t sure what caused the holes in Arctic sea ice, photographed in mid-April 2018.

Deborah Byrd

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