The Dazzling Designs of Alpine Ice Formations

Most people standing at the shore of Lake Constance in southern Germany look up to admire the snow-blanketed Swiss Alps across the water. But while skating along its frozen northwest edge three Januaries ago, photographer Tom Hegen discovered an equally awesome sight looking down.

“The structures in the ice fascinated me and the patterns changed all the time,” Hegen says. “I wondered how it might look from a greater perspective.”

So, a week later, Munich-based Hegen returned to the iconic lake, which is really two bodies of water—the Untersee (or Lower Lake) and Obersee (Upper Lake)—connected by the Rhine River. He brought along the remote-controlled quadcopter he built in 2015 for taking aerial photos. Hegen flew it up to 800 feet above the Mindelsee, a smaller, nearby lake with more interesting surface patterns that feeds into the Untersee. A mirrorless camera mounted on the aircraft snapped hundreds of photos, each capturing an ethereal, 200-foot-wide expanse of ice.

Despite his fascination, Hegen isn’t sure what caused the formations, which resemble the chaotic drips and splashes in a Jackson Pollock painting. But Matti Leppäranta, who teaches geophysics at the University of Helsinki, says the gray and white areas result from air bubbles in the ice and “very shallow snow dunes” atop of it. The huge circular patterns are likely connected to heat rising from deeper lake water and thinning the ice—“a good sign to watch your step carefully,” Leppäranta says.

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