Rare “Dragon-Skin” Ice Spotted for the First Time in a Decade

It may sound like a suit of armor from Game of Thrones, but “Dragon-skin” ice is actually a rare real-life meteorological occurrence, and it’s just been found for the first time in over a decade. It was spotted by a team of researchers on “an autumn voyage” through the Ross Sea (a deep bay off the coast of Antarctica), and we can only assume this means one thing: winter some fascinating climate science is coming.

The Dragon-skin ice, which you can see in high-res in the image gallery below, was observed by 27 scientists from eight different countries, including Dr. Guy Williams, who is an IMAS (Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies) researcher from the University of Tasmania. The scientific crew is taking the autumn voyage aboard the Nathan B Palmer, a vessel that’s been chartered by the United States National Science Foundation.

In a press release, Williams outlined the conditions required to make Dragon-skin ice, which he says stand as “evidence of a darker chaos in the cryospheric realm.” Image: Guy Williams/University of Tasmania

The “cryospheric realm,” Williams is referring to is the cryosphere, which is essentially any surface area of Earth where temperatures are low enough to freeze water or turn ground into permafrost. And that “darker chaos” is a reference to  katabatic or “descending” winds, which flow off from Antarctica out into the surrounding ocean.

Because these katabatic winds can reach up to 190 mph, they are strong enough to lift frozen surface water off the ocean in polynyas, or areas of open water surrounded by sea ice. As the surface water is frozen, broken up, and lifted by the strong winds, new ice is able to form from freshly exposed surface ocean. The result of this process is the Dragon-skin ice, which, let’s be honest, kind of looks like a mystical form of dandruff.

Image: Guy Williams/University of Tasmania

Williams notes that this process basically makes this area of the cryosphere an ice factory, which he says “has a vitally important effect on the local and global oceanography.” Which sounds like a good reason to hope that it’s not another ten years until these icy dragon scales are spotted again.

What do you think about this Dragon-skin ice? Go on an autumn comment voyage below!

Images: Guy Williams / University of Tasmania 

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