Strange underwater icicles form in the Earth's coldest regions and freeze living organisms in place.
- Spectacular brinicles form under the ice of our planet's coldest regions.
- Their formation resembles that of hydrothermal vents.
- The structures have been called "icy fingers of death" because of their ability to freeze living organisms.
Nature's grace and fury find equal measure in unique formations called brinicles or more evocatively "icy fingers of death." The strange phenomenon that forms these underwater icicles can be found in the oceans of the planet's polar regions. It's been rarely captured on camera as it occurs under floating sea ice. Brinicles are structures that resemble fingers of ice that can reach all the way down to the ocean floor, freezing everything in their paths, including creatures like starfish or sea urchins.
In an interview with Wired, professor Andrew Thurber of Oregon State University, who has seen brinicles first-hand, described them as "upside-down cacti that are blown from glass, like something from Dr. Seuss's imagination." He also said they are "incredibly delicate and can break with only the slightest touch."
The video below shows stunning footage of brinicles from BBC's Frozen Planet series:
'Brinicle' ice finger of death
How brinicles form
A study found that when sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic regions freezes, salt and other ions normally found in seawater get left out. Brine, which is concentrated salt water, gathers in various fractures and channels in the sea ice. Brine requires much lower temperatures to freeze and stays liquid until the ice cracks and the brine leaks into the ocean below. Being heavier than water, the ultra-cold brine sinks down to the ocean floor, freezing seawater it touches on its way down. This is responsible for the finger-like shape of the brinicles.
Notably, the downward-facing brinicle ice tubes, first discovered in the 1960s, form in a way similar to hydrothermal vents, which have been theorized as cradles of life on Earth. Hydrothermal vents form when ion-rich hot water gets ejected from the seafloor, creating a porous metal tower that extends upward. Water rushes through the tower, rupturing it, and causing more metal-rich water to expand the tower.
Thousands of brinicles can be found under the ice off Little Razorback Island, Antarctica.Credit: Andrew Thurber / Oregon State University.
Could brinicles be cradles of life?
Study author Bruno Escribano of the Basque Center for Applied Mathematics in Spain explained that, like hydrothermal vents, brinicles also could have played a role in the origin of life. "Inside these compartments inside the ice, you have a high concentration of chemical compounds, and you also have lipids, fats, that coat the inside of the compartment," he shared. "These can act as a primitive membrane — one of the conditions necessary for life."
He elaborated that inside the brinicles is a mixture of acidic and basic components that may be able to supply the requisite energy for the formation of more complex molecules, potentially even DNA.
This is doubly worrisome on the heels of the recent UN climate change report, which gave humanity an urgent deadline to cut carbon emissions: just 12 years.
- It's the same glacier that calved in September 2017, losing an iceberg 4.5 times the size of Manhattan.
- The size of this one, however, is about 15% bigger than the last. It's the sixth large-calving event from this glacier since 2001.
- The irreversible collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet would raise sea levels 20 feet, says the UN.
The Pine Island Glacier (a.k.a. PIG)
The area of the iceberg poised to calve off the Pine Island Glacier is about 115 square miles, or 300 square kilometers.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.
About one year ago, in Antarctica, the Pine Island Glacier calved an iceberg about 100 sq. miles in size—4.5x the size of Manhattan.
It's about to do it again—and this one is 15% bigger than the last, at 115 square miles.
"As the planet warms from 1.5°C to 2°C, the risks grow rapidly for some very dangerous tipping points, including the irreversible collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet (which would raise sea levels 20 feet)," reads the UN's recent IPCC Report.
It's doubly (trebly?!) worrisome on the heels of the above UN IPCC report, which basically tells us we're screwed unless we take drastic action—and, I mean drastic—in order to curb emissions and slow the inexorable drift into an Earth that looks like one of those terrifying science fiction novels.
A 19-mile-long (30 kilometers) rift is splintering across the ice sheet
That's the 2017 calving, in a GIF created by Stef Lhermitte.
If the West Antarctic ice sheet collapses, it will mean a 20-foot rise in sea levels. And it will release twice as much carbon into the atmosphere as exists today.
The fact that the United States has gone the opposite direction, abandoning the Paris Accord and even calculating a rise of 7 degrees (F) as acceptable and even inevitable when working on new automobile emission standards is contributing to a looming climate change catastrophe by 2040.
Vote like your lives depend on it, folks.
Because they do.
A company plans to transform the world's most arid region by bringing icebergs from Antarctica.
What do you do if your nation has a severe water shortage and happens to be located in a bona fide desert? If you have the resources, you turn to technology, which is what a company in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates is looking to do. The country, which gets less than four inches of rain per year, could solve its issue with water scarcity by towing icebergs from Antarctica to its shores. The first such attempt will begin in 2018.
The idea is actually made possible by global warming. The Antarctic ice sheet is the single largest block of ice on Earth, containing over 60% of the world’s fresh seawater. We are talking about ten thousand trillion tons of snow and ice. As icebergs break off from the ice shelf due to rising temperatures, they drift away and eventually melt, wasting up to 20 billion gallons of fresh water per iceberg which could satisfy the needs of an estimated one million people over five years. The UAE could put this water to good use, transforming its country.
How would the monumental task of towing icebergs from Antarctica be accomplished? It could take up to a year to bring them to Fujairah, one of seven emirates that make up UAE.
Check out the video simulation here:
Once the iceberg is at UAE shores, the ice above the waterline would be chipped off, crushed into drinking water, which would then be stored in large water tanks and filtered. The iceberg would also have a broader impact, says Abdullah Mohammad Sulaiman Al Shehi, the managing director of Abu Dhabi-based firm National Advisor Bureau Limited (NABL) in an interview with Gulf News:
“Cold air gushing out from an iceberg close to the shores of the Arabian Sea would cause a trough and rainstorms across the Arabian Gulf and the southern region of the Arabian Peninsula all year round. As the rising air expands, cools and condenses due to the decrease in air pressure. Water vapour is collected in the clouds, they become heavy and falls as rain."
The more icebergs, the more water vapor and clouds, creating a profound effect on the regional climate over a decade, turning the desert into “green meadows”.
The melting icebergs would also add fresh water to the Arabian sea, returning biodiversity by balancing out the brine discharge from desalination plants.
There would also be a boost for tourism from all the people interested in looking at the icebergs.
The Emirates Iceberg Project comes from a group of efforts by NABL called “Filling the Empty Quarter” which aim to dramatically impact the deserts of the “Empty Quarter” (aka Rub’ al Khali), the planet's largest contiguous sand desert. The region is also the richest oil-producing area in the world, including parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE and Yemen. Another such endeavor is the Khalifa River Project, which aims to connect the rivers of Pakistan to the UAE via undersea pipelines.
The company has so far ran simulations and feasibility studies and looks to start the project in early 2018.