It is hard to get properly hysterical about the sea-ice extent, for although the extent is low it really is unworthy of the headlines it gets in some papers. The extent this time of year is largely dependent on sea-ice out at the periphery of the arctic, outside of the Arctic Sea. In terms of the melt in towards the core of the arctic, what matters does not show in the extent graph.
What will matter next September is the current temperature of the water under the ice, and the location of currents, and where the ice is moved and how thick it has become. The extent graph does not differentiate between ice an inch thick and uncovered by snow, which will melt swiftly, and thick ice buried deeply in drifts, which takes longest.
An example of how little extent matters is to look at the year 2006, which had a spring maximum as low as recent years, but progressed to a far higher minimum:
In light of this reality, it is far more meaningful to look at the specifics of the sea-ice situation. It is also far more fun, and allows a greater sense of wonder, for the sea-ice is always up to something, and is full of surprises.
Many people, myself included, entered the study of sea-ice with the preconception that the Arctic Ocean was a rigid field of ice, permanently in place, but now starting to erode at the edges due to warming, which might or might not be due to CO2. In actual fact the ice has always been highly mobile, which is a fact that was understood by even the early explorers.
For example, in 1881 the American ship Jeannette was crushed off the coast of Siberia off the Lena Delta, and in 1884 its wreckage was found off the southern tip of Greenland. This evidence was part of the reason Nansen undertook his amazing adventure in the Fram. His plan was to get intentionally stuck in the ice, and then drift with the ice across the Pole. (When the ice did not drift in the correct direction, he attempted to make it to the Pole by sledge and kayak, leaving the ship behind.) His mind-boggling adventures are both inspiring, and also a treasure trove of information about sea-ice, and I highly recommend spending free time pouring through his notes and records:
For old fossils like myself, there is something very gratifying about seeing a picture of old fellows with white beards up there, but probably they had brown beards, and the hair was just frosted by their breath in the extreme cold. The fact of the matter is that fellows my age are doomed to do most of our exploring from an armchair. While doing this I have found that the people who actually journey up there are far more liable to speak the truth than people who don’t have to deal with life-threatening conditions. This is not to say that the explorers don’t know which side their bead is buttered on, and are not capable of spouting all the politically correct balderdash you could ever desire, but if you overlook these episodes in the manner you’d overlook the fits of a handicapped person, you can learn a lot about actual conditions. The better reports come, of course, from back before Global Warming became the way to pick up chicks, and it is well worthwhile to seek out the records of old whaling ships, as well as the official explorers.
You never know where fascinating stuff will turn up. It was while looking into what stamp-collectors know about arctic post-offices that I stumbled across a collector who was interested in mail postmarked “Fetcher’s Ice Island”, (also called “T-3” and “Drift Station Bravo.”) This large chunk of a glacier likely calved off the northern side of Ellesmere Island after the warm-period of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and then became trapped in the thicker sea-ice of the 1950’s, 1960’s, and early 1970’s, describing circles in the Beaufort Gyre. One report states it was seven miles long when discovered and 50 feet higher than the surrounding pack ice, (which would mean it extended downwards 450 feet), however I have read other reports that stated it was only 10 feet above the surrounding ice (which would mean it extended down only 90 feet.) In any case, it was big enough for an airport and was first inhabited in 1952, last visited in 1979, and apparently drifted down into the Atlantic and melted in 1983, (dropping, among other things, the remains of a crashed C-47 to the briny depths.)
Alarmists like to focus on Fletcher’s Ice Island because they suggest it shows there used to be bigger icebergs in the Arctic Sea, while Skeptics suggest it shows big bergs were calving off Ellesmere Island before Global Warming supposedly started. All I am certain of is that it demonstrates how mobile the sea-ice is.
The stamp-collector had no pictures of anything but envelopes with post-marks on them (called “covers”) in his description of the big ice-island, but at the end of his post he mentions the AIDJEX project of the early 1970’s, and includes two great pictures, one from March 1975 (or perhaps early April) when the ice was thick, and a second from when the ice broke up in September and the base had to be moved sixty miles.
I have found it handy to have pictures of ice breaking up in 1975, when dealing with people freaking about ice breaking up in 2016. (Although it is true that was near the peak of the last cooler-time, and ice was thicker on a whole, I think.) But it just goes to show you, stamp collecting isn’t as dull as it first appears:
Another unusual source is a magazine about canoeing and kayaking. You might think a kayak is an arctic invention, but most people steer clear of ice-water, and are prone to writing articles about paddling in nice warm places like the Amazon. However I chanced upon a wealthy young trio who planned a jaunt around Elsesmere Island in 2010, and, besides rattling off the usual politically correct stuff, they needed to keep some facts in mind, and produced this wonderful mine of data while planning their route. Obviously these fellows wanted to be aware of icebergs, as bergs can melt below the waterline and, becoming top-heavy, abruptly overturn, and when this happens they can make large waves no person in a small boat wants to deal with.
The young adventurers could be as inaccurate as they wanted, regarding history, (for example, the young man dubbed “Turk” said, “One interesting point is that the Ward Hunt Ice-shelf [on the northeastern tip of Ellesmere] broke up in 2010 for the first time in 35 million years,” when the debate actually was whether the calved ice dated from 5000 years ago, or the Little Ice Age 500 years ago,) but they wanted accuracy, and insisted upon accuracy, when it came to meeting bergs face to face, in the present tense.
Therefore they were aware of the current of water rushing south from the Arctic Sea through Nare’s Strait, which separates Greenland from Ellesmere Island. They were also aware that besides more ordinary sea-ice, there would be the far larger bergs that calve off Greenland’s enormous Petermann and Humboldt Glaciers. (In the early-summer satellite view below, Petermann Glacier slants up from the lower right, and Humboldt Glacier is at the bottom right.)
I was made aware of how active the sea-ice is in Nares Strait in 2013 while watching the Army collection of Mass Balance buoys. Bouy 2013C was basically a static weather station, sitting on an 15-foot-thick ice-shelf on the northeast corner of Ellesmere Island, when in July it abruptly broke free. At first it entered Nare Strait in a lazy manner, but then it suddenly took off and headed south at a speed that amazed me. After then hesitating a while, as if it was thinking of entering Parry Sound and attempting the Northwest Passage east-to-west, it again took off to the south along the coast of Baffin Island, before the berg it was on broke up in January as it approached Labrador.
I was initially taken aback, as I assumed that far north, where winds are especially cold, the sea-ice would be thickest, but, as I continued to observe, I understood there is nearly always a flow of ice south, containing a lot of sea-ice and also scattered big glacial bergs, of the sort that sank the Titanic.
When the ferry “Highlander” was halted for half a day up by Cape Breton last week, it was sea-ice alone that was involved. (North winds brought all the scattered ice together as a single mass along the shore.)
It is further north, off the northeast coast of Labrador, that the big bergs enter the mix. They come every year, and, while dangerous, they are so strikingly beautiful that tourists come from far and wide to see them.
Canadians do a good job of tracking all the larger bergs, and alerting ships to the southeast.
Some of the bergs are enormous, and rival Fletcher’s Ice Island. Some passing the coast last spring were 5 km long.
This is just life as usual for the people living up there.
However some Alarmists tend to see the bergs as a sign the Greenland ice cap is breaking up. This is especially prevalent this year, as the Canadian’s in charge of watching the bergs report they are arriving earlier and are more numerous.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my decade of experience,” said U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Gabrielle McGrath, commander of the USCG’s International Ice Patrol, in a recent interview. McGrath says that recent storms have led to a larger and earlier spring breakup: IIP’s satellite observations recently identified 455 icebergs in one week, five times the average in years past.
To me this seems a switch in Alarmist worry. They used to like to take a picture of a lone big berg, far away from the smaller sea-ice, and speak mournfully of how the ice was melting…melting…melting…
This year I suspect we will be shown pictures of crowds of bergs and be told Greenland is melting…melting…melting…
But the problem is that, if an especially large amount of ice was being lost, I would expect a dip in the mass-balance graph. Instead the amazing snows over southeast Greenland have increased the mass-balance to levels not before seen this early in the season.
To me this suggests that rather than seeing extra ice, we are seeing the same amount of ice hurried south earlier in the season, for the pattern that brought south winds and snow to the southeast of Greenland accelerated the Nare’s Connection, with increased north winds on the west side of Greenland.
Sometimes a sort of plug or clot of sea-ice forms at the top of Nares Strait during the winter, and ice stops entering at the top. This leads to a polynya forming at the bottom of the strait, as ice continues to be exported south without ice from the north arriving to replace it. This year we can see a dimple in the 15-foot-ice either side of the top entrance, as ice continues to be sucked through. The stream of ice can be seen continuing into Baffin Bay to the south.
This stream of ice continues south, trending towards the west coast of the bay…
Eventually the sea-ice crashes into the northeast coast of Labrador
(Notice the scattered ice in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence is all blown down to Nova Scotia’s north coast by the north winds, which led to the ferry being trapped for a while.)
So there you have it, the tale of the Nares Connection. It is one of the major exports of arctic sea-ice, though often unnoticed. It also is an example of how very mobile sea-ice is. It is far from the static stuff some envision.
Hopefully I’ll find time to post about the shenanigans the sea-ice has been pulling off along the coast of Russia. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in the world of sea-ice, but you have to look for it.
In the more ordinary world of waiting for the yearly melt, this is a boring time. Winds did shift east for a bit at Barrow, creating the chance a polynya might form by the coast, but winds have shifted back around to the north, which will keep the ice stuck fast. The wind is at 16 mph and the temperature is 2° (-16°C).
Up in Parry Sound O-buoy 14 did see temperatures rise under cloud-cover to -10°C, before they fell all the way back to -30°C under clear skies. The sun isn’t high enough to truly warm, but we are starting to see an effect at noon, and diurnal variation appearing in the temperature graph.
Only one Army Mass Balance buoy has been placed this year. Buoy 2017A is located on ice about three feet thick up in the Beaufort Sea at 72.90° N, 147.10° W, and is reporting temperatures at -25.88° C. The ice there is growing thicker.
If you want to lose several hours, there is an archive of past Army Mass Balance Buoys, including one back in 1993, that you can pour through here:
If that doesn’t convince you sea-ice isn’t static stuff, I give up.
PS INTERESTING NORTH ATLANTIC ARGO TEMPERATURE GRAPH FROM BRETT
PPS –Interesting satellite view of the ice pouring out to sea off Newfoundland.