A NASA aircraft has spotted something in the Arctic that it can't explain and it has "never seen before."

On April 14, NASA's Operation Ice Bridge captured images over the Beaufort Sea, 50 miles northwest of the Mackenzie River Delta. The images, taken by mission scientist John Sonntag, show unusual or "curious" circles that the government agency can't explain.

“We saw these sorta-circular features only for a few minutes today,” Sonntag wrote from the field, according to NASA. “I don’t recall seeing this sort of thing elsewhere.”


NASA released the above-image, in conjunction with the mission. Some of the oddities can be explained, such as "finger rafting" (the ridges near the top right), but the others are baffling scientists.

“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 project scientist Nathan Kurtz, according to NASA. “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 theory is that it could be a drainage feature, according to Walt Meier, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center. It has also been suggested it could be due to the way the water washes over the snow and ice as seals come up for air.

Chris Polashenski, a sea ice scientist at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, said he has seen these features before, but cannot properly explain them. He added that it could be seals popping up for air, but was not certain.

For now, the holes remain a mystery, even as scientists attempt to explain what they are.

“This is in pretty shallow water generally, so there is every chance this is just ‘warm springs’ or seeps of ground water flowing from the mountains inland that make their presence known in this particular area,” said Chris Shuman, a University of Maryland at Baltimore County glaciologist, according to NASA. “The other possibility is that warmer water from Beaufort currents or out of the Mackenzie River is finding its way to the surface due to interacting with the bathymetry, just the way some polynyas form.”

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