The Alaskan Ice Monster – A Lesson in Critical Thinking

The Internet has gone crazy for a new monster, apparently we’ve grown bored of clowns and we’ve moved on to a mysterious sea creature in a river in Alaska.

It all started with a 21 second video clip of what appears to be a 15 foot ice-covered creature swimming upstream in an undulating fashion. Undulating, by the way, means to move in a wavelike fashion; that will be important later.

Inferred credibility grew out of the fact that the video was originally posted on the Facebook page of Alaska’s Bureau of Land Management, part of the United States Department of the Interior, a government agency. The caption of the video was, “Our Fairbanks employees captured this strange ‘thing’ swimming in the Chena River in Fairbanks.”

It’s exciting to think that a new creature has been discovered. It’s also exciting when things are mysterious, we’re compelled to want to know more, our brains are just wired that way. What’s in the water in the video looks somewhat like a creature moving against the current. Also, the Facebook post referred to it as a “thing” and said it was “swimming”, which further misdirects the brain into believing a new sea monster has been discovered.

There’s an idea called “Occam’s razor”, which was described by a guy named William who probably owned a razor because beards were out of fashion in his day. In philosophy, a “razor” is a principle that allows one to discard (“shave off”) assumptions and unlikely explanations for a phenomenon.

Let’s start shaving.

Firstly, the original video is only 21 seconds long and the “full length” video is just over a minute. Both versions of the video cut before the “creature” is out of sight. If you saw a strange sea monster floating in the river, wouldn’t you get as much footage as you could? We don’t see what happens after the video clip. Also, for most of the video the image is zoomed in so that you don’t see the “creature” in relation to objects around it. The water rushing over “it’s nose” gives the appearance of upstream movement, but if we can’t really track its position.

Next, the creature appears to be covered in ice, but still moving actively. Ice – which is frozen water – is 32 degrees Fahrenheit, 0 degrees celsius. Most animals that aren’t mammals or birds are unable to produce body heat, their temperature is regulated by the environment. They’re called ectotherms, or “cold-blooded” animals. Large reptiles and snakes cannot live in freezing water, as their metabolism would stop. Cold-blooded animals that do survive in extreme cold environments do so by placing themselves in a state of torpor, which means they slow their metabolism and stop moving. It’s almost like the “suspended animation” you see in sci-fi movies. Almost. Torpor greatly reduces their body’s energy needs. Fish in a freezing pond will swim down to the warmest spot they can find and just sit there until it gets warm again. Moving would waste energy. This includes giant sturgeons. The “creature” in the Alaska video is moving. Kind of a lot.

Warm-blooded animals in cold environments, especially cold enough to get themselves iced-over, go into a state of hypothermic shock. The heart stops at 68 degrees F (20 celsius). If the Alaska video were of an actual creature, it wouldn’t be warm-blooded, unless it were some kind of new warm-blooded animal who’s body fluids contain a high concentration of antifreeze (incidentally, some fish actually produce their own antifreeze).

The idea of a warm blooded animal that can produce enough of it’s own antifreeze to survive in freezing water long enough to get itself iced-over is an assumption. A big assumption. Another assumption is that this animal has gone undiscovered until just now. Remember our buddy Occam? I mean William?

This “creature” appears to be moving in a wavelike fashion; undulating. What else moves in a wavelike fashion? If you said “water”, give yourself a cookie! As a result of that movement, anything buoyant in that water is going to move with the motion of the waves. Anyone who’s gone for a swim in the ocean knows this.

The “ice monster”, when you shave away the assumptions and unlikely explanations, is most likely a rope that has one end stuck on something to keep it from drifting away. If the rope has been underwater for a while, it would be covered in moss and plant material. The leading edge of this rope creates and obstacle for the water current, and the appearance of motion is due to the water rushing around this obstacle.

If the original video had the caption “look how this rope moves like it’s some kind of creature” the video would probably never have gone viral.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Five years ago in Iceland, Hjörtur Kjerúlf filmed a similar “creature” on the river Jökulsá í Fljótsdal. It was dismissed as a piece of fishing net caught on something underwater. Some people still insist, however, that the Iceland “creature” was real, nd it’s a good bet people will also insist the Alaska “creature” is real. The “rope” explanation will probably be labeled a government cover up. Because it’s a lot more fun to believe a 15 foot creature that can survive icy conditions is only just now being discovered