Ice Circles: the Crop Circles of the Sea? 10 Facts About This Strange Phenomenon

If you have a few weather or science-obsessed Facebook friends, you’ve probably seen videos of so-called “ice circles” circulating online in the last 10 years or so. What are ice circles? They’re those slowly rotating, almost perfectly circular, sometimes giant disks of ice that look like frozen lily pads. Scientists have been studying their mysterious rotations since at least the late 19th century—check out this 1895 mention in Scientific American—but it took until 2016 for a team of Belgian physicists to figure them out.

Even after their breakthrough discovery in March 2016, there’s still some misinformation out there about ice circles, published in supposedly reputable places. This list of ice circle facts will hopefully put that to rest. How do ice circles form, for real? Read on to find out.

Photo: Juliancolton / via Wikimedia / Public Domain

  • Eddies Are Just Part of the Story

    Until March 2016, the most common scientific explanation for the rotation of ice circles was that they were being spun around while melting by something called eddies. An eddy is a circular movement of water, against the grain of the main current, that forms when water flows, causing a baby whirlpool. Peer-reviewed research published in the journal Weather in 1997, for example, concluded that “the direction of rotation is that of the whirlpool that is necessary for the phenomenon to occur.” While eddies likely contribute somewhat to the spin, newer research reveals that eddies are not, in fact, a necessary part of the phenomenon.

  • They All Rotate at Roughly the Same Rate

    They All Rotate at Roughly the Same Rate
    Photo: Seabamirum / via Flickr

    What evidence is there that eddies aren’t necessary to the process? For one, small ice circles and big ice circles under the same conditions both rotate at just about the same speed, which wouldn’t be true if little whirlpools were responsible. The most damning evidence against the eddy theory, however, is that the ice circles still rotate even when the water is still. So if eddies don’t make the ice circles spin, what does?

  • Some Are Large Enough to Stand On

    Some Are Large Enough to Stand On
    Video: YouTube

    First, let’s take a closer look at these things. How big can they get? They range in size from 1 to 200 meters across, meaning there are some out there in the wild that you can ride like a merry-go-round, like the guy in the video above (but it’s not recommended!). Researchers in 1987 in Sweden, for example, learned a lot more about these ice circles by stepping out onto one that measured about 50 meters across.

  • They're Not Always Solid Pieces of Ice

    They're Not Always Solid Pieces of Ice
    Photo: Jo Jakeman / via Flickr

    While some ice circles are solid enough to stand on and appear to be one solid chunk of ice, many of them are actually a lot more fragile. Allen Schlag, a National Weather Service hydrologist, told the Associated Press in 2013 that one he observed in North Dakota was more like a mosaic: "If you were to throw a grapefruit-size rock on it, it would go through. It's not a solid piece of ice - it's a collection of ice cubes." The ice around the edges of ice circles can not only be fragile, they’re often frazil, which is what scientists call the “loose, randomly oriented needle-shaped ice crystals” in water that resembles slush.

  • They Make Noise

    They Make Noise
    Video: YouTube

    As an ice circle rotates, it smoothly erodes the so-called “border ice,” sometimes with a blade-like contact point that moves with the circle. The ice circle, in other words, doesn’t “roll” on the walls of the hole it created, but instead continually carves its place out in the border ice. It’s almost like a needle on a record: research indicates, in fact, that some ice circles cause a low-frequency sound as they spin, as long as the “needle” is still making contact.

  • Some of Them Are Actually Bowl-Shaped

    Some of Them Are Actually Bowl-Shaped
    Video: YouTube

    Further examination reveals that these ice circles or ice disks may actually be more accurately called ice bowls. The small ice circles in the above video, for example, while not nearly as dramatic as their big siblings, are helpful for demonstrating the “true” shape of many ice circles. Researchers in 1987 discovered that a large ice circle on the Pite River in Sweden was slightly bowl-shaped on closer inspection. Erosion from rainwater was ruled out, considering that the bowl-shaped indention would have had to be there in the first place to collect the level of rainwater that it did.