Pancake Ice

The lily pads of the polar regions, pancake ice consists of rounded sheets of newly frozen water

Pancake Ice

What is pancake ice?

Pancake ice is a term used to describe generally circular ice formations that range from 30 cm (12 inches) to three meters (10 feet) across and up to 10 cm (4 inches) thick. Pancake ice is typically grouped, and the rimmed edges of pancake ice pieces are often raised due to frequent collision with other ice. The accumulation of slush and frazil ice, which is a collection of ice crystals that take shape on moving water, also contributes to the raised edges of pancake ice.

Pancake ice production

Pancake ice is commonly formed among grease ice, which is a thin layer of ice that gathers on the surface of agitated water (such as swelling seas) and often includes frazil ice and slush. When the floating ice rinds of grease ice break up, pancake ice forms out of the pieces.

More turbulent waters can transform pancake ice into larger bodies of ice through a phenomenon called “rafting,” which occurs when ice pieces are pushed on top of each other, eventually freezing together into solid sheets. These sheets become ice floes, and from that stage they can consolidate into even larger ice covers.

The Arctic’s growing pancake ice

Pancake ice is said to be increasing in the Arctic, and some researchers speculate that climate change could be a contributing factor. It has even been asserted that pancake ice buildup may be accelerating temperature rises.

Because much of the larger Arctic sea ice has been decreasing, more surface water has been exposed to wind. The generation of waves from this wind has led to the agitation in which pancake ice often occurs. Also, the rounded shape of pancake ice leaves more of the water exposed to solar radiation that would have otherwise been reflected off sea ice.

Pancake ice and other formations

Far from an isolated phenomenon, pancake ice occurs among a wide variety of ice formations and behaviors. Pancake ice is known as “new ice,” which designates any recently formed ice that has not yet shaped into a solid form. Frazil ice, made up of spicules and plates, also belongs to this group.

Slush, which is snow saturated with water, qualifies as new ice as well. There is also shuga (ice lumps that are only a few cm/inches across and are spongy in texture) and grease ice (an accumulation of frazil ice into a soupy oil slick-like layer that forms on the surface of rapidly cooled water).

Pancake ice is only one stage in these evolutions, which proceed from new ice to nilas (stronger ice crusts) to young ice (between nilas and first-year ice), and so on. The study of ice is not only fascinating in its multiplicity, it also indicates much about polar climatological conditions.