It shouldn’t make any sense, but there it is. A fragile yet intimidating tentacle of ice slicing through arctic waters, freezing to death every starfish and sea urchin in its path. It’s called a brinicle.
And it’s kind of beautiful.
Brinicles aren’t a new phenomenon, but we’ve known about them for a relatively short time. It wasn’t until the 1960s that scientists discovered brinicles, and not until 1974 that oceanographer Seelye Martin came up with an accepted model for their formation.
Still, the average ocean lover had no idea how to visualize the eerie occurrence. Until 2011, that is.
That’s when a BBC crew caught the first video of a brinicle forming in the Antarctic Ocean.
This was no accidental video. Cameramen Hugh Miller and Doug Anderson battled elements like frigid temperatures, interference from animals like seals breaking up their perfect shot, and the logistics of setting up heavy, expensive equipment sturdily underwater.
Thankfully, it all paid off. The stunning video aired on BBC’s "Frozen Planet" in 2011.
The world could finally visualize what happened when “icy fingers of death” form.
Here’s what we know about that formation: Brinicles happen in the Arctic and the Antarctic, where the air above the seawater can often be colder than the water temperature.
In calm waters, heat from the warmer ocean air flows toward the surface, creating new ice. Many impurities — including salt — are pushed out when seawater freezes. That in turn makes the surrounding water more saline, which does two things.
First, it lowers the temperature at which it freezes, meaning it doesn’t turn immediately to ice. Second, it increases its density, which causes it to slowly sink.
These little sinking tunnels are called brine channels. As they continue to sink in a descending plume, they freeze the seawater around it, which is still not as saline as the brine channels.
That creates a brittle, briny icicle — a brinicle — around the descending plume. Some scientists have described it as a cold chimney, but in reverse. The whole process can take hours.
Once it hits ground, it shows little mercy to the surrounding wildlife.
Any starfish in the brinicle’s path has to swim fast or risk getting frozen, hence, the “fingers of death” nickname.
That’s what we know about brinicles. But there is still plenty of unknown surrounding the underwater tentacles. Some scientists believe brinicle formation could teach us more about the formation and fostering of life on places like Earth and some of Jupiter’s moons.
That means that those icy fingers of death? They could just hold all the answers to life.
Watch the full BBC video of a brinicle forming below.