Ethereal ice swirls dance around Arctic peninsula in stunning new satellite image

A satellite image of ice swirls in the Sea of Okhotsk captured by NASA's Aqua satellite on May 28. The snow-covered land mass is Russia's P'yagina Peninsula. (Image credit: Wanmei Liang/MODIS/NASA Earth Observatory)

A stunning new satellite image shows an enormous mass of melting sea ice elegantly swirling around a Russian peninsula in the Arctic. Although beautiful, the scene is a sombre reminder of the ever-increasing effects of climate change.

NASA's Aqua satellite snapped the dazzling ice display on May 28 twirling around the Sea of Okhotsk for hundreds of miles, just off the coast of Russia's snow-covered P'yagina Peninsula. The image was released on June 12 by NASA's Earth Observatory.

The ethereal white swirls, which appear every year, are made up of melting sea ice being dragged around by ocean currents. The P'yagina Peninsula is a hotspot for these types of swirls because cold air and fresh water deposited into the sea by rivers help create particularly thick sea ice, some of which can still be seen hugging the peninsula's north coastline in the image. 

When the sea ice melts in spring and summer, the fracturing ice chunks are pushed south by the wind into vortex-like ocean currents created by a group of small islands located to the south of the landmass' main point, according to the Earth Observatory. 

Ice swirls like this can come in a range of shapes and sizes. In December 2022, an extreme cold snap in the U.K. created a host of mini ice swirls, or "ice pancakes," on rivers in Scotland that were formed by tiny spiraling currents known as eddies.

Related: Rare wispy ice formations streak across the sea near Antarctica in beautiful satellite images

A closer look at the swirling ice. (Image credit: Wanmei Liang/MODIS/NASA Earth Observatory)

The larger Russian swirls can sometimes persist for months and are occasionally pushed as far south as Japan. In 2018, several large swirls, each measuring more than 31 miles (50 kilometers) across, were spotted off the coast of Hokkaido, the country's northernmost island, Japanese news site The Mainichi reported at the time. 

The swirls are also appearing earlier every year because there is less sea ice developing in the Arctic over winter and what sea ice there is breaks up earlier due to the effects of human-caused climate change.

On March 6, the Arctic reached its annual maximum sea ice extent — the point at which the largest surface area of the ocean is covered by ice. This year's maximum extent was the 6th lowest on record, meaning there was a lot less sea ice than normal, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Since then, the sea ice in the Sea of Okhotsk has melted away at a faster rate than the rest of the Arctic for unknown reasons, according to the NSIDC. 

A study published Feb. 14 in the journal Atmosphere-Ocean revealed that the sea ice extent in the Sea of Okhotsk decreased by about 9% per decade between 1979 and 2010. 

Sea ice is also disappearing in Antarctica. In February, the world's most southerly continent experienced a record-low minimum sea ice extent, where sea ice coverage reached its lowest point, for the second year in a row

Harry Baker
Senior Staff Writer

Harry is a U.K.-based senior staff writer at Live Science. He studied marine biology at the University of Exeter before training to become a journalist. He covers a wide range of topics including space exploration, planetary science, space weather, climate change, animal behavior, evolution and paleontology. His feature on the upcoming solar maximum was shortlisted in the "top scoop" category at the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) Awards for Excellence in 2023.