On February 4, 2014 the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) flying aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite captured a true-color image of sea ice off of western Alaska.

In this true-color image, the snow and ice covered land appears bright white while the floating sea ice appears a duller grayish-white. Snow over the land is drier, and reflects more light back to the instrument, accounting for the very bright color. Ice overlying oceans contains more water, and increasing water decreases reflectivity of ice, resulting in duller colors. Thinner ice is also duller. The ocean waters are tinted with green, likely due to a combination of sediment and phytoplankton.

Alaska lies to the east in this image, and Russia to the west. The Bering Strait, covered with ice, lies between to two. South of the Bering Strait, the waters are known as the Bering Sea. To the north lies the Chukchi Sea. The bright white island south of the Bering Strait is St. Lawrence Island. Home to just over 1200 people, the windswept island belongs to the United States, but sits closer to Russia than to Alaska. To the southeast of the island a dark area, loosely covered with floating sea ice, marks a persistent polynya – an area of open water surrounded by more frozen sea ice. Due to the prevailing winds, which blow the sea ice away from the coast in this location, the area rarely completely freezes.

The ice-covered areas in this image, as well as the Beaufort Sea, to the north, are critical areas for the survival of the ringed seal, a threatened species. The seals use the sea ice, including ice caves, to rear their young, and use the free-floating sea ice for molting, raising the young and breeding. In December 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposed that much of this region be set aside as critical, protected habitat for the ringed seal.

Credit: NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team

NASA image use policy.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center enables NASA’s mission through four scientific endeavors: Earth Science, Heliophysics, Solar System Exploration, and Astrophysics. Goddard plays a leading role in NASA’s accomplishments by contributing compelling scientific knowledge to advance the Agency’s mission.


  • Title: Sea ice off western Alaska
  • Date Created: 2017-12-08
  • Location: Greenbelt, MD
  • Rights: GSFC
  • Album: ayoung

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