“They look like upside-down cacti that are blown from glass,” explained Dr. Andrew Thurber who had witnessed an amazing phenomenon that very few people had ever seen before. Dr. Thurber was on a research trip in Antarctica in 2011 when he discovered something brilliantly unexpected. What he witnessed was the formation of a brinicle. It is exhilarating to know that new and wondrous discoveries are still being made on our planet and the brinicle is one of them.
The best description of what a brinicle is would be to call it an underwater icicle, or ice stalactite. Believe it or not, these spindly, ice fingers form in the extremely cold ocean environments of Antarctica and the Arctic. But how does it work? Well, in the winter when the sea ice begins to form, the water molecules make up the solid ice and the salt is excluded. The expelled salt forms viscous pools of brine, or pockets inside the solid ice. Eventually the ice cracks and the more dense saline brine is released and falls downward into the sea water. The brine is super-cooled due to its high salinity. If you have ever lived in a very cold region you may be familiar with the application of salt to icy roads. This is done because salt lowers the freezing/melting point of water. The same principle applies to the brinicle and when brine begins to sink it flash freezes the seawater it comes in contact with and forms a tube of ice that sometimes grows to touch the shallow ocean floor.
In 2011, BBC aired the mini-series: “Frozen Planet” and brought the wonder of brinicles to the world through a fantastic and rare time-lapse video of one forming. The crew camped at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica and after some intense planning and a couple of failed attempts, film team Hugh Miller and Doug Anderson captured the first video of a brinicle forming and reaching the ocean floor. This formation took about 12 hours and then spread 20 feet along the seabed. While it is beautifully eerie it is also a killer. Many urchins and sea stars scurry along the sea floor and those that come in contact with the icy fingers are killed in its path.
The scientific studies of brinicles are still in its early stages, but as new and incredible things are discovered every year, the possibilities are endless.
Discover more unbelievable facts at “The Science of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!®” at Arizona Science Center through May 4, 2014!