Something Poked Holes In The Arctic, And We Can't Figure Out What


Katy Evans


Katy Evans

Managing Editor

Katy is Managing Editor at IFLScience where she oversees editorial content from News articles to Features, and even occasionally writes some.

Managing Editor


A genuine curiosity; even NASA isn't sure what made them. John Sonntag/Operation IceBridge

Another week, another “strange sighting” in the Arctic ice. If it was one of those sites that constantly spot space mice, floating spoons, and Batman's signal on Mars or pyramids in the Antarctic, then we’d obviously be raising a skeptical eyebrow right now. But it was NASA who spotted these unusual holes in the Arctic ice, so color us intrigued.

Operation IceBridge, despite sounding like something Jon Snow is planning for GoT’s final season, is NASA’s airborne mission that has been running for nine years, flying over both the Arctic and the Antarctic, photographing, mapping, and documenting the regions’ changing sea levels, land, and sea ice. 


On April 14, IceBridge mission scientist John Sonntag saw something he’d never seen before – and this is the guy who gave us the incredible photos of the cracks in the ice before the Larson C ice shelf broke off last summer – so he’s no stranger to the mysterious frozen landscape.

While flying over the eastern Beaufort Sea, Sonntag and the team spotted the curious shapes – circles with what looked like holes in the middle. “We saw these sorta-circular features only for a few minutes today,” Sonntag said. “I don’t recall seeing this sort of thing elsewhere.”

The image snapped was so curious it qualified as Earth Observatory's April “puzzler”; each month they share curiosities with the public with the challenge to help identify or shed light on the subject and the chance to win NASA recognition, "credit and glory".

The project scientists themselves have a few theories for what could have made these circles as some aspects are recognizable, but in all honesty, they’re still a little stumped.

John Sonntag/Operation IceBridge

“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,” said IceBridge member Nathan Kurtz. However, “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.”

One suggestion is the central holes are created by marine mammals like seals gnawing through the ice to create air holes as they appear similar to documented breathing holes created by ring and harp seals.

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

Other suggestions include warm springs made from groundwater flowing from the mountains, or the warmer currents of the Beaufort Sea or the nearby Mackenzie River reaching the surface. The truth is, currently no one knows. We told you, intriguing!


  • tag
  • mystery,

  • NASA Earth Observatory,

  • Beaufort Sea,

  • harp seals,

  • ring seals,

  • strange circles arctic,

  • Operation IceBridge