Rumours that the Arctic ice is melting have been announced, denounced, cause for concern and cause for debate over the past few years, but is it really melting?
In September 2007 satellite images (being used by scientists studying the Arctic’s ice health) showed the record minimum of the region’s ice cover; the result of a massive summer melt. Then the 2008 and 2009 satellite images displayed the moderate recovery of the late summer, resulting in some believing that the imminent ice-free polar ocean was not as serious as was first feared.
However Arctic climatologist, David Barber of the University of Manitoba, got an unpleasant surprise while conducting an on-the-ground research expedition. While he was onboard the Canadian research icebreaker “Amundsen” he was checking on the ice in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska and Western Canada. The “Amundsen” was within a region that the satellites said should be impenetrable due to thick, multi-layered ice. The ship however continued to cruise through, even piercing the “thick” ice easily when they reached it.
Basically the satellite information was wrong. Where they said there should be melt-resistant tightly-packed ice there was instead holes “like Swiss cheese” Barber explains. It is something that hasn’t been seen before. The recent declines are consistent with a world warming unevenly. The Arctic has experienced around twice the rate of warming it’s used to in the past several decades.
Glaciers do tend to come and go, however never at this fast rate. Ruth Little describes the scene from her expedition there: “It’s a strange and dispiriting experience… [these] landscapes are vast, but not sublime in the way the glaciers themselves are. Perhaps [it’s] because they’re so recently exposed”. She spots a white Arctic fox, commenting on how exposed it is against a backdrop of brown. She explains that while there are birds around for the fox to feed on the bears have to travel great distances to find sea ice where seals are found.
Barber discovered that the sea was not just whisper thin, even where the ice was thick, according to the satellites; it was only in chunks, masked by the new top layer of ice. The incorrect information suggests that satellite analyses should be reconsidered. The algorithms used to analyse the ice were developed years ago, and could very well need updating.
What’s scary is that the weakness of the multilayer ice could mean that if the unfavourable winds of 2007 could result in the Arctic experiencing another dramatic summer melt – not just of the first-year ice on top but some of the “rotten” multilayer ice. A large-scale melt like this would mean a speed-up of Global warming; the open ocean reflects less of the sun’s energy than ice does.
No one knows when this disaster may occur as the long-term rise in temperature globally as a result of greenhouse-gas emissions is influenced by natural, year-to-year variables. However, due to the cyclical tendencies of these variables the conditions that resulted in the 2007 massive summer melt will probably return at some point and if they do the Arctic could experience major and possibly irreversible changes.