Bizarre ‘Camouflage’ Formations in Alaska Marsh Ice Baffle Scientists

by Taylor Cunningham
John Pennell/Getty

A marsh in Alaska has frozen into “army camouflage ice” and scientists can’t figure out how.

The vivid gray and white formation was shared on Facebook by Luc Mehl, an avid Alaska outdoorsman who has published several books about the state’s backcountry.

In the caption, Mehl explained that he spent seven years studying “crystal morphology with optical and electron microscopy” and he’d seen similar patterns on a smaller, but the “much larger scale” pattern “blew” his mind.

He offered one possible explanation behind the phenomenon, but he admitted that it may be incorrect.

“My best guess is that the orientation of the ice crystals somehow controlled the amount of degassing during a solar heat/thaw event. White crystals have more bubbles, dark crystals have less. And then everything was covered by a few inches of fresh water. So cool!” he wrote. “One thing I absolutely loved about geology was seeing similar processes at different scales. What a treat to get a taste of that well after my ‘retirement.”

Scientists ‘Completely Stumped’ by Camouflage Ice

Mehl later spoke about the patterned ice to McClatchy news. He shared that it covered about 100 square feet of the Palmer Hay Flats. He found the spot while he was out “wild ice skating” on Nov. 12.

“I was completely stumped,” he recalled. “And for the record … I shouldn’t be stumped. I spent two geology graduate programs literally studying how crystals grow and deform. That’s how weird these textures struck me.”

The ice was about six inches thick and rested on top of three feet of water. The camouflage pattern was made of “thousands of tiny bubbles.” Typically, methane creates ice patterns, but that was the case there.

“Methane bubbles are large,” he continued. “And they flatten out when they rise up and rest against the ice.”

Mehl then ruled out the possibility that rocks or vegetation caused the colors. So, he went back to his original theory that a solar thaw caused them. However, he’s not 100 percent sold on his own idea.

“The big questions are: Are the camo blocks individual crystals? What caused the bubbles to form? Why are there different bubble densities right next to each other? Does the pattern represent something from below … or from above (due to heating)?” he asked.

Unfortunately, the Facebook comments didn’t offer many answers either. While several Ph.D. earth scientists offered their thoughts, they could only think that the ice formed on the surface of the marsh and then more ice came later and caused the marbled look. Or whatever led to it formed underneath the surface and eventually rose to the top where it was met with more ice.