How these weird round rocks came to be on Canada’s Arctic shoreline

These strange, perfectly spherical stones in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, lit up social media with wonder last week. (Bethuel Ootoovak/Facebook)
They’re perfectly round and hard as, well, rock — and they’re littering Canada’s Arctic shore.

Eerily round rocks can be found on beaches from Paulatuk, N.W.T., to Coral Harbour, Nunavut, but they still inspire awe in many who are seeing these strange stones for the first time.

Social media erupted with wonder when Bethuel Ootoovak posted a photo of Ida Pikuyak posing next to one near Pond Inlet, Nunavut.

Some thought they might be meteors descended from space or giant dinosaur eggs petrified over millennia. Some even saw the handiwork of an alien race.

It’s not the first time people have thought these strange stones to be the work of aliens, gods, or giants. But in fact there is a natural explanation.

The uncannily round stones found in Pond Inlet are an example of fairly common phenomena called concretions.

Ida Pikuyak poses with one of the Pond Inlet stones. Though they may look like the work of aliens, they’re actually the result of natural processes. (Bethuel Ootoovak/Facebook)

The process begins with a pile of sediment — mud, silt, or sand — near a flowing body of water, explained Marc St-Onge, a researcher with the Geological Survey of Canada.

Over time, harder materials, like shells, leaves and fossils, will be carried into the pile by that flowing water.

In most places, that pile of sediment remains just that — a pile. But if there’s some “cementing mineral” dissolved in the sediment, he said — something like calcite, the mineral that forms limestone — those tiny leaves and shells will become the seed for giant rocks like the ones at Pond Inlet.

A concretion at California’s Bowling Ball Beach. Concretions are formed over millennia, then eroded into perfect spheres by water and ice. (Lisa Redfern [CC-BY-SA 3.0])
Over millennia, layers of hard, concrete-like rock form around the object, like an ancient stone onion.

Any sediment that forms on the onion is a lot softer, St-Onge said, so it erodes more easily — though it would still take waves or ice millions of years to form the perfect spheres at Pond Inlet. He estimates the concretions in Pond Inlet are about 100 million years old.

Even though the process behind a concretion is epically long and quite specific, they’re more common than you might think.

Concretions similar to those found in Pond Inlet can also be found here, near Qeqertarsuaq, Greenland, and in a handful of other places around the world. (Submitted by Mark Mølgaard)

As commenters on Ootoovak’s photos learned, they’re found all over the north, from Kodiak Island on Alaska’s southern coast to Paulatuk in the Northwest Territories and Qeqertarsuaq in Greenland.

In fact, concretions can even be found in places far from water, like Alberta’s Red Rock Coulee or Kazakhstan’s Valley of the Balls.

That doesn’t make Pond Inlet’s massive rocky spheres any less amazing, though — Ootoovak’s photos were shared more than 1,700 times on Facebook.

Related stories from around the North:

Antarctica: South Pole warmed 3 times the global rate over the past 30 years, new study suggests, Thomson Reuters

Canada: Peat fires, like those raging in Siberia, will become more common in Canada, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Finland behind on sustainable development goals, Yle News

Greenland: COVID-19 delay, early ice melt challenge international Arctic science mission, The Associated Press

Iceland: Ice-free Arctic summers likely by 2050, even with climate action: study, Radio Canada International

Norway: Climate change hits back at Svalbard, coal mine flooded by melting glacier in Norway, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Climate change has prolonged Siberian heat by at least 600 times, say researchers, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: January temperatures about 10°C above normal in parts of northern Sweden, says weather service, Radio Sweden

United States: ‘Into the Wild’ bus likely lands a home at Fairbanks museum, Alaska Public Media

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