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‘Today was a rough day for the ice disk’: A mysterious Maine phenomenon weathers a chain saw attack

A floating disk of ice has captured the interest of residents in Westbrook, Maine. It appeared in the Presumpscot River and began spinning on Jan. 15. (Video: Reuters)

In 2016, two police officers in Westbrook, Maine, reported seeing a 10-foot-long snake devouring a beaver on the banks of the Presumpscot River. The purported sighting of a real-life river monster was the most-talked about event in years — that is, until last week, when the Portland Press Herald announced that another uncanny natural phenomenon had captivated the city of nearly 19,000.

A whirling, perfectly rounded ice floe that resembled the surface of the moon had formed in the river, leading residents to jokingly suggest that an alien invasion might be underway. The frozen orb was roughly 300 feet wide, city officials estimated, making it appear to dwarf a nearby parking garage. Naturally, international celebrity followed, and people from all over the Northeast began driving to Westbrook to see it for themselves.

But the ice disk’s days may be numbered. On Thursday, temperatures in Westbrook hit a high of 50 degrees, and the top layer of the ice began to look decidedly slushy. An inch and a half of rain didn’t help, and neither did the man from New Jersey who showed up with a chain saw and an ax and started hacking away at the disk.

“I’m making a giant peace sign out of this,” Christopher Angelo, 44, told WGME. “I want it to spin around so bad and create that visual for the world to see, of peace making the world go around right here in Westbrook.”

The disk had already stopped spinning earlier in the week, and by late Thursday night, its future looked uncertain.

“Today was a rough day for the ice disk,” the city of Westbrook wrote on Facebook. “It was hit by warm temperatures, heavy rains, and an out of state visitor who used tools to cut chunks out of it and carve a line across the middle. We discourage anyone from attempting to go out on the ice. It is not safe and the public is enjoying it [intact.] We hope the ice disk can rebound.”

Though the ice disk has a way of making people think about crop circles and alien spacecraft, scientists say that its formation is completely natural. Ice disks have previously been spotted in other frigid areas of the country, though they generally don’t get as big as the one in Westbrook.

“If one side of the river is flowing faster than the other, the ice on top experiences a shearing force, analogous to forcing a vinyl record to spin by flicking one side,” The Washington Post’s Matthew Cappucci and Angela Fritz reported. “When the ice spins, its edges are shaved off where it grinds against other ice or obstacles. Eventually, a perfectly trimmed circle is all that is left.”

It’s not clear exactly when the Westbrook ice disk began to form. Rob Mitchell, a local business owner, told the Press Herald that he first noticed it just before 10 a.m. on Jan. 14 and immediately informed city officials.

“There were ducks sitting on it,” he said. “The ducks were rotating on this big Lazy Susan. It was a big duck-go-round.”

Later that day, the city’s marketing manager, Tina Radel, flew a drone over the river and captured mesmerizing aerial footage of the slowly rotating ice formation. The images quickly spread around the Internet, and one Twitter user wrote that they found it hard to think of a better metaphor for the current state of the country than “a perfectly formed union frozen and spinning in circles for the world’s bemusement.”

Ironically, the government shutdown has made it even easier for admirers from all over the world to keep tabs on the ice disk. On Wednesday, the Westbrook ice disk got its own live, 24-hour webcam, courtesy of a polar oceanographer. Chris Horvat, a postdoctoral scholar at Brown University, had been studying Arctic ice floes when his research was derailed by a lack of funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That prompted him to see what he could learn by monitoring the ice disk instead.

Die-hard fans glued to the webcam panicked on Thursday afternoon, when it appeared that a crack had split the ice disk in half. But as it turned out, what they were witnessing was just one man’s failed attempt to turn the disk into a massive peace sign so that he could “send a message of positivity.”

The culprit, the Press Herald reported, was Angelo, who had been arrested on two separate occasions in 2013 and 2014 for climbing and planting an American flag on top of storm-damaged rides at a New Jersey amusement park hit by Hurricane Sandy.

Decked out in a neon yellow lei, Angelo carried a pickax, hatchet and chain saw on his inflatable raft and told the paper that he wanted to get a master’s degree in ice disks. He reportedly fell into the river at one point and was soaked to his waist but managed to quickly pull himself out and get back to work.

Locals were not amused. On social media, some suggested that Angelo should serve jail time, and that Maine should “build a wall to keep these nuts out” or deport people back to New Jersey. An anonymous Twitter account professing to be the voice of the ice disk wrote, “I always felt the message of peace and unity was implied. I’m really not into body art.”

But police said that though they had received a number of calls about the incident, there was nothing they could do.

"It isn’t against the law to chop river ice,” Westbrook Police Department Captain Sean Lally told the Press Herald. “Unusual? Yes. Why someone would come here from New Jersey to chop up an ice disk is beyond me. I do know that the river will continue to flow and the Maine winter is far from over, so Mr. Angelo might want to seek long-term accommodations if he intends to defy Mother Nature.”

Angelo eventually gave up on his own, and the Press Herald reported that the ice disk was “still intact though somewhat scarred” when he left with his chain saw.

The ice disk has been an unexpected boon to Westbrook, a suburb of Portland, Maine, that is home to a paper mill and one of the state’s largest power plants. On one afternoon last week, the Press Herald reported that dozens of people could be found taking photographs along the riverbank, while bars and restaurants near the water were crowded with customers.

Westbrook Mayor Mike Sanphy, who appeared on ABCs “Good Morning America” last Wednesday to promote the ice disk as a tourist attraction, told the paper that out-of-towners who came to see the ice disk had been commenting on how many new stores and restaurants had opened in Westbrook over the past few years. “We’ve been trying to revitalize the downtown, so anything that brings people in is good for business,” he said.

More spectators showed up on Thursday, fearing that the ice disk might not be long for this world.

“With the warm weather, I thought it might be melting and it might be my last chance to see what the phenomenon is all about,” Terry Lacarrubba of Gray, Maine, told WGME.

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