About three years ago, it was the mystery of the giant water snake that captivated residents in the sleepy Maine city of Westbrook.
Now, there’s another strange occurrence twirling around in the river that cuts through the community.
On Monday, officials from Westbrook, an old mill city west of Portland, posted several images taken with a drone of what they called an “ice disk,” a circular frozen sheet that’s slowly churning in the middle of the Presumpscot River like some type of arctic buzzsaw.
The “amazing naturally occurring phenomenon,” as officials have called it, has captured people’s attention on Facebook, where it’s being compared to a frozen crop circle, an icy moon, and a spot where aliens may have landed.
If you squint and look at the pictures shared online, the swirling sheet of ice looks like an image of the earth taken from outer space.
“Oh no!” one person commented on the city’s Facebook page, where an image of the circular ice formation has been shared hundreds of times. “The world is coming to an end.”
The city also took video of the ice disk from above using the drone, likening it to a celestial presence here on earth.
“It looks like the moon has landed in Westbrook!” city folks wrote on Facebook Tuesday morning, as interest in the disk continued to ramp up.
The strange sight is being treated as a tourist attraction, with officials urging the public to “get out today to check it out” for themselves.
The disk can be seen by land from the city’s River Walk, near Ash Street, according to officials.
Tina Radel, Westbrook’s marketing and communications director, captured and posted the drone photos and video.
She said she learned about the icy mass from a resident who owns a building along the river and quickly went out to inspect it.
“It’s pretty massive. I think getting the perspective from the sky kind of makes it even more impressive,” she said in a telephone interview. “We are only allowed to fly 400 feet high with the drone, and I wish I could have gone even higher [directly above it], because I could get the whole thing — that’s how wide it is.”
Radel admitted she’s no scientist, but she said her theory is that the circle, which is spinning counter-clockwise, may have formed after a smaller piece of ice got caught in a whirlpool, and then continued to collect larger chunks as it rotated.
“It’s still spinning, so it could get even larger,” she said.
John Huth, Donner professor of science at Harvard University, said the rink-like circle is due to an eddy at that location along the river.
“You can see the main flow to one side, but with a river opening like that on the side the ice-disk inhabits there is an eddy — a kind of vortex — where the water flows in the opposite direction,” he said in a statement. “Since the water in the eddy is flowing more slowly than the main current, it’s more likely to freeze, creating the icy disk. The icy disk retains the rotation of the eddy, as it’s caught in it.”
This isn’t the first time that Westbrook — which has a population of about 19,000 — has received a bit of attention for something strange swimming around in the Presumpscot River.
In the summer of 2016, a snakeskin measuring 12 feet was found near the winding body of water, setting off rumors that a giant reptile was lurking in the muddy river and eating the rodents living on its banks.
There were several alleged sightings of the snake reported (even a worker from Westbrook’s public services department and two police officers claimed to have seen it) that garnered a slew of national media attention and attracted cryptozoologists — those who track the likes of Bigfoot — to the area.
The mysterious snake was dubbed “Wessie” as the legend of its presence grew, and people started writing songs and brewing beers in the animal’s honor.
Seeing an opportunity to turn the buzz about the snake into a way to boost tourism, a festival was hosted to celebrate it.
Radel said she’s taking the ice formation’s presence in stride and using it to once again highlight Westbrook’s offerings. She said she plans to monitor the circle Tuesday as it continues to spin in the river.
“You know, if it gets people into the downtown area and using our businesses, that’s kind of what my mission is as a marketer. It gets people looking at it, so we kind of run with it,” she said. “We work to produce all this content, but Wessie and ice circles are what the people really want. I think there’s a lesson there somewhere.”
Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.