On April 14, a group of NASA scientists flew across the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska and the Canadian border, when they saw something puzzling: three holes in the sea ice, looking like rings around them and some rippling ice to theirs left.
"I can not remember seeing such things elsewhere," said John Sonntag, a NASA meteorologist who took the above photograph, in a statement.
At first glance, it might look like the cool equivalent of the crop circles, but the scientists are pretty sure there is a simple explanation in this case. "My first guess is that they are sealed breathing holes," says Walt Meier, an atmospheric scientist at the National Ice and Ice Data Center focused on sea ice. It is known that harp and ring seals make such holes in thinner Arctic sea ice and then repeatedly use these holes to gain air.
For this theory to survive, there must be a good explanation for why sea ice is thin enough at this point to break the seals. Meier says these holes could be the result of warmer water coming from the nearby Mackenzie Delta, the shallow outflow of the Mackenzie River from the nearby Canadian coast. According to Meier, warmer water from the river flows into the ocean, and because warm water is less dense than cold water, it naturally floats to the surface on the surface.
This in turn dampens the ice on the coast surface, and could have pulled seals in place as the marine mammals tend to pick points to breathe where the ice is already thin. There are formations near the holes that look like waves, which, according to the scientists, could be the result of water swirling around the edges ̵
By itself, these holes do not tell us all about the Arctic marine environment. They are more spectacle than anything else, says Meier. But they indicate a trend in sea ice in general.
The photo above shows ice with proof of "finger rafts" – where is when the wind collides two ice sheets that overlap like folded hands. The most likely explanation, says Meier, is higher Arctic temperatures. In the past – still in the 1980s – the sea ice in the region would be thick enough to withstand the southern winds blowing north at the beginning of winter. But in recent years, thanks to warmer Arctic waters, the ice tends to be less stable and more easily blown away by the wind. Then the exposed water freezes over the winter, but only to thin leaves.
These thin leaves are more likely to be blown together, creating the "finger-rafting" phenomenon, and they are prone to melt because they are warm river water from the shores. "In recent years, how often that happens and the scope of [this pattern] is much more than before," says Meier.
It is impossible to combine this photo – just one data point – directly with climate change or warming Arctic waters. However, the photo suggests that future research in the region could find a trend of decreasing ice over these waters.
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The bizarre holes that NASA made in the Arctic sea ice is a sign of a more worrying trend