What are pancake and frazil ice?

Wednesday, January 3, 2018


​Oceanographer Ted Maksym tells us about four different types of sea ice, and what they might indicate about the changing Arctic.


Pancake ice in the Southern Ocean. Credit: Kenneth Mankoff (CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0)

With the Arctic's annual summer ice cover hovering at record lows, a new record low in global sea ice coverage recorded earlier this year, and a large crack threatening the collapse of a large ice shelf in Antarctica, it can feel like the news about Earth’s polar ice caps is all bad.

But for researchers who spend time in the frigid polar seas, ice is also a beautiful and unique phenomenon. Ever heard of frazil ice? How about pancake ice? Far from goofy names, these are key steps in the evolution of sea ice from water to a solid sheet. Oceanographer Ted Maksym shares his insights into the ice at Earth's poles.

Print the excerpt transcript.









                                          Frazil ice (left) and nilas ice (right).


  • Why do you think it is important to have names for different types of ice?
  • Why don’t pancake ice pieces stick together when they bang into one another?
  • How do ocean conditions affect Antarctic ice? Arctic ice?
  • What does the presence of frazil ice in the Arctic tell us about ocean conditions in that region?
  • Brine is water saturated with salt. Why does brine freeze the sea water below the surface? What does that tell you about the freezing point of fresh water versus salt water?

Activity Suggestions

Additional Resources

Next snowstorm, grab a magnifying glass and try snowflake hunting!

Vocabulary: Antarctica, Arctic, ice crystals, ice floes, sea ice, brine

Next Generation Science Standards: CCC1: Patterns, ESS3.C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems, PS3.B: Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer. Can be used to build towards MS-PS1-4, MS-ESS3-3, HS-ESS3-6.


Xochitl Garcia @msxgarcia -Education program assistant @scifri and 2015 #grosvenorteacherfellow @NatGeoEducation. #STEM Educator obsessed with food and board games.

Science Friday Spoonfuls @scifri ‏ - The latest and greatest science news from public radio’s Science Friday, ready for classroom use.