NASA spots strange "sorta" circles and holes in Arctic sea ice

NASA has published an image showing "sorta circular" spots in the Arctic sea ice, but it doesn't know what they are or what caused them. The landscape features were captured during an annual mission called Operation IceBridge, the space agency explained. Mission scientist John Sonntag saw the circles during a flight on April 14; he captured an image of them later released by NASA.

Every year, NASA's Operation IceBridge takes place over the planet's polar regions; this year marked mission #10 over the Arctic. During this time, researchers map sea and land ice; this year, a mystery was discovered. According to the space agency, Sonntag noticed the unusual circles and holes while on a P-3 research plane.

The plane was flying over the Beaufort Sea's eastern region when he noticed the circles, at which point Sonntag took the image above. At the time, the scientist wrote the following information down: "We saw these sorta-circular features only for a few minutes today. I don't recall seeing this sort of thing elsewhere."

NASA explains that the primary mission for the flight had been observing an area of sea ice that didn't get covered by Operation IceBridge before 2013. "The features are more of a curiosity than anything else," NASA says, also stating that the image "sparked a fair amount of intrigue."

Due to the limitations inherent to having only a single image of the features, NASA says determining what we're looking at is tricky and that right now all it has is speculation. The ice in that region is described as fresh, thin, and soft, a determination made based on some of the features visible in the image. However, project scientist Nathan Kurtz isn't sure what caused the circles, saying, "I have never seen anything like that before."

Warm water may have caused the circles and holes, though it's also thought that maybe seals are responsible. The creatures may have gnawed breathing holes in the ice; when the animals crawl up onto the ice from below, water may splash out onto the surface, forming the circle visible around the holes.