Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

Ice Circles Explained (Kind of)


They are circles, symbol of perfection since ancient times. They are on ice, not seldom on thin ice where no one could possibly stand before braking it. They are the ice circles, a puzzling mystery.

Nowadays, as God and other magical figures are not as active as they were in ancient times, the first explanation apparently everyone think of is… UFOs, taken as synonym of alien spaceships. I can’t blame them, because as a skeptic, or perhaps, a dogmatic debunker, I also used to brush them off automatically as hoaxes without much thought. Interestingly, even the NIDS, far from being a skeptical group, investigated a case and suggested it was a hoax (Report on an Ice Circle in NE Utah, February 21, 2002 – PDF).

It had to take the recent rash of ice circles news reports for me to finally discover that ice circles are not hoaxes and in fact a fascinating phenomenon. Reports date back as far as the 1930s, from several countries in the Old and New world, they often form in thin ice and, most importantly, they have been seen in their forming stages.



The Norwegian Crop Circle Group has online the excellent article by Bob Rickard of Fortean Times that has mostly all the relevant information you will need on the subject, including a photo of the first ice circle reported in 1930. Don’t miss it: Rings of Ice (PDF, FT74, 1994).

whaleflatuf Among the many explanations suggested to the many rings is the idea proposed by Jerome Carr that one particular circle was “created by the near-perpendicular strike of a meteorite and the resulting wave patterns overlapped to produce rings of broken ice”. MUFON investigator Paul Rosenfield actually searched for the meteorite in the bottom of the river, with no success.

Another fellow suggested the phenomenon could be “the result of a fresh spring directly below the ice ‘burping’ aerated water”. That’s an adorable idea, and it’s just the opportunity for me to post this recent photo of whale flatulence (also a newly recorded phenomenon) that you can see on the right. Perhaps we will find ice circles in the arctic?

More plausible explanations relate them to the also interesting “pancake ice”, which are similar and rather well understood, but not exactly the same thing.

But on to real solution to this phenomenon.



Many of the British newspapers (well, at least two of them) mentioned that:

“They occur at bends in the river where the accelerating water creates a force called ‘rotational shear’, which breaks off a chunk of ice and twists it around. As the disc rotates, it grinds against surrounding ice – smoothing into a perfect circle.”

As none other than the Daily Mail nicely put it, along with many photos of other ice circles around the world.

Indeed, while the exact mechanism by which they form is not known, they are all associated with whirlpools or eddies. Randi is right. And thanks to the Internet you can actually see that in action:

That’s the ice circle from Sheridan Creek, Mississauga, Canada just before last Christmas. You will notice in the previous link that even an expert couldn’t explain it very well.

Since the publication of the article on Fortean Times in 1994, at least one other case was published in a journal in 1997 and thus chronicled by William Corliss, but while several ideas can be proposed and it’s obviously a natural mechanism involving the interaction of freezing weather and eddies, no clear explanation much less a reproduction has been made. Shame on us.

The key to the mysteries of the Universe may be related to solving exactly how ice circles are formed. Even if it’s just a very small key.



Since we are talking about Fortean ice curiosities, besides the absurd, unexplained and yet very real Mpemba effect, I can also suggest… the ice spikes:


Or the amazing… snow doughnuts.


Both are rather well understood, and are simply fabulous. Looking at the snow doughnut, I can’t help but think that perhaps man didn’t quite invent the wheel.

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Posted in Fortean,Science | 1 comment

1 Comment so far

  1. Craig York January 16th, 2009 4:36 pm

    Hmmm. Occam’s ice skates…Makes sense to me, though I
    still wonder about the simpler forms of Crop Circles.

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