Ocean Currents

An Arctic Mystery: What are These Circles in the Arctic Ice?

© John Sonntag - Operation IceBridge

Recently, when flying over the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic, NASA scientists stumbled on a bit of a mystery: three holes in the sea ice surrounded by irregular circular shapes.

As part of its Operation IceBridge mission, NASA has been photographing, mapping and documenting how climate change is affecting both the Arctic and the Antarctic. NASA scientists have flown over a lot of sea ice during their missions, but the ice features shown in the above photograph were something new.

Like much about the Arctic region, scientists don’t know exactly how these shapes were formed. Maybe seals or whales created the holes in the ice, and water flowed out to cause the surrounding circle shapes on the ice. Or maybe warm water bubbled up from below to create the features.

However these shapes came about, we know they appear in an area of young, thin ice that was recently open water. The ice is so pliable that wave-like ripples appear on its surface, which can be seen in the center-left of the photograph.

The fact that these scientists don’t know how these features were formed and haven’t seen them before highlights just how much there is to learn about the Arctic Ocean and the ways it is changing. We do know, however, that Arctic sea ice—both the multi-year ice that persists from year-to-year as well as seasonal ice that forms from open water each fall—is on a downward spiral. In general, Arctic sea ice covers significantly less area than it once did, especially in summer, and is much thinner than it used to be. That’s a major concern.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. In recent years, Arctic wildlife and peoples have faced rapid and dramatic impacts related to global climate change. Summer sea ice, habitat for so many Arctic animals, is little more than half the area it was only a few decades ago. Some scientists predict that the Arctic could be largely ice-free in the summertime by the 2040s.

While we may not know yet what caused the circles in the photos captured by the NASA scientists, we do know that continued research and study is critical to understanding the impacts of climate change and identifying viable management measures for this remote and rapidly changing region. All of us here at Ocean Conservancy are working toward solutions that will sustain a healthy, productive ocean—for people and wildlife alike.

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