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Rare 'dragon-skin' ice spotted in Antarctica, researchers rush to study the phenomenon

Mirror logo Mirror 10/05/2017 Jeff Parsons
Credits: IMAS © Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc Credits: IMAS

You'd be forgiven for never having heard of dragon ice.

It's a rare phenomenon that occurs when intense wind buffets water around even as it freezes. The result is a dramatic natural formation that researchers still don't fully understand.

Recent sightings of dragon ice in Antarctica are the first in ten years and scientists are hoping to get a window of opportunity to study them.

"Dragon-skin ice is very rare, bizarre, evidence of a darker chaos in the cryospheric realm, not seen in Antarctica since 2007," said Dr Guy Williams, a member of the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania and one of the researchers who spotted the ice.

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Video provided by Veuer

The cryospheric realm is the area of our planet covered by surface ice - most notably the polar regions.

Dragon-skin ice is created by strong winds called katabatic winds. These winds are powerful enough to pick up the surface ice as it is freezing to expose the water underneath. That also freezes which creates the layered, scale-like pattern.

"Imagine your standard ice cube tray, filled once. After a week, you get one tray of ice cubes. But if you empty and re-fill the tray each night, you get so much more," said Williams.

Credits: IMAS © Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc Credits: IMAS

"That is what the katabatic winds are doing in the polynya, removing the ice, exposing the water, and making more ice form."

The dragon-skin ice was spotted by Williams and others whilst aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer ice-breaker research vessel crossing the Ross Sea.

We will spend the next two weeks in the belly of this ice-breathing dragon, taking advantage of quiet periods when the katabatics drop off to observe the increase in salinity of the shelf waters below," said Williams.

The Nathaniel B. Palmer is set to finish its expedition in June. 

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