Ever since last Christmas, when we watched a surge of relatively mild Atlantic air penetrate up to the Pole, (giving birth to maudlin newsprint regarding Santa’s workshop melting), (even though the above freezing temperatures only lasted a couple hours before rapidly plunging, and were not exactly on the Pole,) I have been noting the meridional or loopy nature of the weather patterns, and how not only was warmth brought north but cold was brought remarkably far south, giving, for example, Kuwait its first snow ever recorded.
This past summer I noted how often low pressure developed over the Pole, and as a sort of joke called the generality “Ralph”. Purists likely could point out that it wasn’t a single storm, and that in a few cases I cheated, for as one storm faded like a sinking ship I moved the Ralph-flag via lifeboat to a new and developing low. However I did this to stress how stormy the Pole was, and fortunately this site is obscure enough to avoid the phenomenon of trolls, who could have easily wasted everyone’s time petulantly insisting it was wrong to give a whole sequence of storms a single name.
Then Ralph became a notable gale, by some accounts the 4th deepest gale since 1979. This made the topic of low pressure at the Pole more newsworthy, for a few days, but then interest faded, yet I have continued right on following Ralph.
In my last notebook the final notes had Ralph fading on August 25th, north of Franz Josef Land, as R17 (which is short for 17th reinforcement), gathered warmth and juice over the New Siberian Islands.
By the 27th Ralph was transferring his flag via lifeboat to R17, which was becoming a tight gale on the East Siberian coast. His circulation was feeding milder Pacific air towards the Pole from Bering Strait
The 28th saw Ralph pulled towards the milder air flooding up over the Pole, and the Pole above freezing. This was a red letter day for those who long for an ice-free Pole, for not only did they get their second ice-smashing gale in a week, but they got an upward spoke in temperatures at the Pole.West winds were roaring along the top of the Canadian Archipelago and Greenland, tearing away at the thickest and toughest ice in the arctic, and likely dispersing a lot eastward. (Around seven years ago, when certain Alarmists awoke to how tough this particular ice is, they abruptly said it didn’t count, when calculating an ice-free Pole, and from that day forward an ice-free Pole included a million km2 of sea-ice.)
As an aside I should note that when a loopy, meridional flow brings mild air to the Pole one usually sees cold air exported south. In this case it was all the way down to China, as some parts of Russia’s far east saw six inches of snow where the trees still had green leaves.
August 29th was surprising to me as Ralph, after peaking as a 969 mb gale while crossing the Pole, dug towards the Atlantic, and pumped a ridge towards the Pacific. We haven’t seen this sort of high pressure all that much this summer. The Pacific-to-Atlantic cross-polar-flow of the above map swiftly swings to a Siberia-to-Canada flow in the map below. Ice moving one way is abruptly torn another, though mild air still flooded the Canadian side of the Pole.
In the above map it is noon in the Pacific. In the map below it is twelve hours later, and you can see the diurnal midnight cold growing on the Pacific side, as Ralph weakens over Svalbard.
Twelve hours later it is noon again on the Pacific side, but colder than it was a day earlier. This demonstrates the few weeks of polar summer, where the Pole is a part of the planet that actually gains heat, are now past. The sun may still be up at the Pole, but it is so low the landscape is chilling, and will continue to lose heat month after month, even after the sun comes up again next March, and even to the first days of next June.
The above map is the closest to a “normal” map we’ve seen in a long time. The high pressure over the Beaufort Sea at least attempts a semblance of a Beaufort Gyre, and the flow between that high and Ralph is a (poor) semblance of a Transpolar Drift. However a sort of R18 is occurring as milder air is tugged north from West Siberia, and Ralph is being swayed back up towards the Pole.
That brings us to today, the last day of August. Ralph is resuming his stance as king-of-the-mountain on the Pole. He is weaker, but so is the high pressure towards Alaska. The cold air is continuing to build over the Pole.
It looks like R19 is coming north from the Atlantic. Some models suggest Ralph will poke down into the Canadian Archipelago to make things interesting for people attempting the Northwest Passage.
Ralph’s continuous battering of the sea-ice has sent the extent graphs down, and it looks like this year may rival 2012 as the lowest extent of ice ever. However there are significant differences. It is interesting to compare the two years. (2012 left; 2016 right)
Around now the ice starts to grow back nearly as fast in some places, even as it melts in other places. On ordinary years the melt tends to be basal (from beneath) and the refreezing tends to be along upper edges exposed to air. However this is no ordinary year. The above map shows the ice as solid in places where it is shattered, and is averaging-out areas with zero thickness with other, nearby areas that have thick bergs. Averaging gives a false impression.
I can never recall seeing ice like this year’s. Usually, from space, you see many “chips” (which can be as big as Mahattan or Rhode Island) with flat edges, and at the edges of the masses of chips, where the ice is battered by waves, the ice forms curves of crushed ice that looks like sand bars, which I call “ice bars”. This year Ralph’s raging has turned entire areas of ice into those ice bars, with no “chips” to be seen.
The above map shows a notch jabbing towards the Pole, with blue on either side indicating sea-ice two or three feet thick. The satellite views below show the actual ice on either side of the notch.
It is obvious it is not a flat pan of ice, all 2-3 feet thick. There are areas of open water, which means the ice that is there is likely 4-8 feet thick. (Then the model “averages”.)
This is something I’ve noticed, during the few occasions I’ve been able to get views from boats, buoys or Barrow. The bergs are thick. For example, there have been several occasions winds have blown bergs ashore at Barrow, and even when they are so sparse, (less than 10% of extent), that they register as “ice-free” water on maps, the bergs are thick enough to ground some distance from Barrow’s shore, and remain lodged there for several days, tide after tide, before finally being washed away.
For another example, here is one of today’s views from O-buoy 14, in an area many maps show as “ice-free”.
(See how the water is shining in the distance? As a fisherman, I’d be worried about getting a sunburn under the brim of my hat, by bounced-light. The sun is getting down to where the albedo of open water increases, and finally surpasses that of ice.)
In conclusion, I don’t think our ordinary experience is much use this year. Things are different. We are not talking about basal melt under flat pans of ice. The basal melt will be different because the bergs are big chunks, and also the water has been stirred by Ralph’s cold rages, and even has had snow dumped in it.
Also the surface refreeze will be different. Comparing the ice-edges this year with other years is like comparing the coastline of Maine with California’s. (Maine’s is longer, though California is a much bigger state.) As temperatures drop below the freezing point of salt water, (as they already have at times), the ice will have a greater opportunity to extend itself.
At this point the best chance for significant melting is for R-19 to bring north a huge surge of mild, Atlantic air.