These mesmerising photos of nearly frozen waves look like they’ve been pulled straight out of the new Frozen 2 trailer. However, they were taken by photographer Jonathan Nimerfroh in Nantucket,
Massachusetts. So, unless Elsa has recently moved to New England, this sub-zero phenomenon is entirely the work of Mother Nature.
Nimerfroh first encountered the slushy waves back in February 2015, during his daily surf check.
“When I pulled up to the beach I could see the horizon just look strange,”
Nimerfroh said. “When I got to the top off the dunes I saw that beginning about 300 yards away from the shoreline the ocean was starting to freeze.”
“The high temp that day was around 19°F (-7.2°C). The wind was howling from the southwest which would typically make rough or choppy conditions not so good for surfing, but since the surface of the sea was frozen slush the wind did not change the shape. What resulted was perfect, dreamy,
While freshwater freezes at 32°F (0°C), seawater has a lower freezing point at about 28.4°F (-2°C), due to its salt content.
According to Carin Ashjian, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, seawater in winter is generally a degree or two above freezing. However, when the air is breathtakingly cold for a period of time, the topmost layer of water several yards thick can approach the freezing point.
When the surface skin of that layer loses heat to the sub-freezing air, there’s no heat to be gained from the water below it, and the surface freezes. For a time, the wave action of the sea prevents individual chunks larger than kernels of corn from forming, although ice of that consistency is on its way to freezing solid.
Having lived in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts for 20 years, Ashjian says that she’s seen the bay freeze over several times. However, the specific environmental conditions that lead to frozen waves in Nantucket are certainly not common.
“I’ve been asking all the fishermen and surfers I know if they have ever seen such a thing,” Nimerfroh said. “They have all reported that this is a first, a result of it being the coldest winter we’ve had in 81 years. I guess the people I asked weren’t old enough to remember a colder winter than this!”
It’s even more remarkable then that, with similarly harsh winter conditions hitting the northern US in January 2018, Nimerfroh encountered the slushy wave phenomenon once again.
Speaking with Live Science last year, Nimerfroh said that “with a floundering temperature in the low, single digits…I knew there was a good chance the Slurpee waves would find their way back to Nantucket. Sure enough, on the morning of January 2, I pulled my car up to Nobadeer Beach and there they were.”
According to Nimerfroh, the ocean was a nippy 12°F (-11°C), but this time, two of his friends braved the cold conditions and managed to surf the icy slabs.
All photos: Jonathan Nimerfroh.