The airborne mission that flies annually over the polar regions, NASA’s Operation IceBridge, is celebrating its tenth-anniversary making flights over the Arctic. This represents several hours of flight spent mapping the land ice and sea ice in both polar regions.

However, on April 14, 2018, the IceBridge mission scientist John Sonntag recognized something he had never witnessed before.

A photograph taken from the window of the P-3 research plane, which was flying over the eastern Beaufort Sea, – located 69.71° North and 138.22° West, about 50 miles northwest of Canada’s Mackenzie River Delta – showed features that were almost circle-like. Sonntag explained he had never seen this elsewhere.

Still, the features remain more of a curiosity than anything else to the NASA. The organization explains that the purpose of the flight that day was to develop observations of the sea ice in an area that lacked coverage by the operation before 2013.

The intrigue that leads to speculating

The image caused a sort of curiosity inside the headquarters, so they decided to set out to see what they could learn from them. Usually, this kind of investigations are not merely based on a photograph or satellite image, so the ideas they put out are denominated by the NASA as pure speculation.

NASA explains that some aspects of the features are “easy” to tell. The describe how the sea ice in the area photographed is young ice growing within what they consider was once an extended, linear area of open water.

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The NASA experts are not sure about the precedence of these holes. Image credit: AP

“The ice is likely thin, soft, and mushy and somewhat pliable. This can be seen in the wave-like features in front of the middle ‘amoeba’,” said Don Perovich, a sea geophysicist at Dartmouth College.

He then noted that there could be a wide left to right motion of this new ice as evidenced by the finger rafting on the right side of the picture. This finger rafting takes place when two floes of thin ice collide.

As the result of the collision, blocks of ice slide above and below each other in a pattern that, according to the sea geophysicist, resembles a zipper or interlocking fingers.

A scientist from the IceBridge project, Nathan Kurtz, explained how they knew it was an area of thin ice, as the finger rafting near the holes could be seen, and the color was gray enough to indicate little snow cover. He also claimed he was not sure what kind of dynamics would lead to the semi-circle shaped figures that surrounded the holes. According to him, he had never seen something like that before.

Mammalian origins

Chris Polashenski, a sea ice scientist at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, explained that he, in fact, had seen features like this before. However, he did not have a substantial explanation for them. He agrees that one possibility could be that these holes are breathing holes for seals, just as he accepts that the features could be caused by convection.

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

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Some scientists believe the holes were created by animals. Image credit: Getty

From the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the glaciologist Chris Shuman – now based at the NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center – claimed there is a chance that the features are just “warm springs” or seeps of groundwater flowing from the mountains, as they were in shallow water generally.

He then contrasted another possibility: one that claimed that warmer water from Beaufort currents or out of the Mackenzie River found its way to the surface due to the interaction with the bathymetry. He added that this is also how some polynyas form.

Arctic’s shrinking ice

Another issue has been worrying scientists, and it is the rapidly diminishing sea ice in the Arctic, and the stave off of the most punishing effects of global warming. As small spheres of reflective sand are sprinkled upon a frozen lake, scientists hope the measure will prevent the ice from melting or slow its process.

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The researchers will keep investigating until further knowledge. Image credit: AP

The project, called Ice911, looks to slather around 19,000 sq miles of sea ice with trillions of sand grains with the purpose of stem the loss of ice cover and prevent runaway climate change. Leslie Field, the founder of Ice911, claimed:

“The ice in the Arctic isn’t going to come back by itself. And we don’t have much time left. It hit me like a train. The importance of the Arctic just leapt out to me. I looked at it and thought: ‘What if this is a materials problem?’ You go through the list of things that aren’t adding pollution or foods to the environment and it’s a fairly short list. I’ve been through a few options and this one has legs.”

Source: NASA