One thing I find engrossing about watching sea-ice is to see I am wrong. Sea-ice is always pulling off stunts that surprise me, and, because my income does not depend on being “right”, seeing the sea-ice do things I did not expect increases my sense of wonder.
Originally I watched the ice for the same reason I watched clouds out the window during Math classes. Science had nothing to do with it. Perhaps it was a study of Truth, but it was Truth as a poet defines Truth, and didn’t involve Math at all. It was only when pugnacious people appeared out of the blue to disagree with what I was observing, with my innocent, dreamy eyes, that I got sucked into the Climate Wars. Even then I avoided Math whenever possible. I found it was often possible to point out the simple fact sea-ice hadn’t melted because drifting buoys had cameras, and I could see it hadn’t melted. I didn’t need calipers.
Even without calipers the arctic is wondrous, full of surprises that can get you into trouble, because what you see disagrees with textbooks. Just for an example, the older textbooks described the Arctic Sea as “sterile”, once you got away from shore. It was assumed to be the same as other oceans, where life thrives near land, where seaweed can anchor on rocks and create a habitat, but life doesn’t thrive away from land, where the waters are in a sense bottomless. Using this assumption, it was assumed that when (and if) Global Warming melted ice away from shores, seals and polar bears would be forced out to sterile waters and starve. However then came the surprise; the Arctic Sea is not like the others. It was noted that the underside of sea-ice was slimed with growth, and ice-breakers far from shore saw arctic cod jumping before their plowing prows. In other words, sea-ice creates a habitat where other seas only can create micro-habitats from drifting objects (such as fouled boat-bottoms.)
Another surprise, to me at least, was how mobile the ice was. In fact this was known more than a century ago,
Wreckage from the Jeannette was found by Inuit on the southwest coast of Greenland in 1884, three years and 2900 nautical miles from where it sank. This information suggested to a young Norwegian scientist and explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, that just as the debris of the Jeannette had been transported across the Arctic Ocean by the ice, so too could a vessel if it was properly constructed to withstand the pressure of the ice. Funded by Norwegians, a specially constructed vessel, the Fram, was constructed with a rounded bottom to lift the ship under ice pressure. Nansen departed Bergen, Norway with the Fram in 1893, headed eastward along the Northeast Passage, and turned into the ice pack north of the Lena River in eastern Russia.
Nansen’s adventures make a splendid sidetrack, if you ever have a need to escape reality for a while. But in this post I’m just using Nansen to bring you to the Lena River and the Laptev Sea.
The Lena River is one of the World’s ten largest, and is wonderful because its rate-of-flow varies enormously. During the winter the bitter Siberian cold freezes the water to the bottom along shallower stretches, so upstream waters must lift the ice to squeeze beneath. So little melting occurs upstream the flow shrinks to a relative trickle. Only around 3% of its yearly flow occurs in January, but then at long last spring comes, and a vast area of Siberian snow starts to soften and then melt, and the river rises, and rises, and rises, over sixty feet in places. Around 40% of the yearly flow comes roaring downstream in August, and all that fresh water goes pouring out into the Laptev Sea, creating a so-called “lens” of fresher water atop more saline waters, and creating all sorts of mathematical problems I avoid like the plauge, (except to read what others have figured out, after they have done the Math for me.)
Even as this flood is reaching its height the days are growing shorter and the first frosts are occurring, and the lens atop the Laptev is swift to freeze, (as it is less salty). Then the land cools far more swiftly than the sea, especially once there is snow-cover. The relatively warmer water causes the air-in-place to rise and make space for the Siberian air, and a persistent land-breeze develops, at times becoming a gale, as cold, sinking air rushes out over the sea. Rather than thickening the ice, the ice is pushed away from shore and a polynya of open water forms. It too freezes, and it too is pushed towards the Pole. In fact the Laptev Sea is the greatest producer and exporter of sea-ice of all the marginal seas. Much of the ice in the Transpolar Drift, that piles up against the north coast of Greenland, and then is flushed south through Fram Strait, had its origins in the Laptev. Or so say the textbooks.
This past summer the sea-ice chose to go its own way. This was largely due to a persistent area of low pressure I dubbed “Ralph” which wandered and meandered, faded and reformed, in the general vicinity of the Pole. The Transpolar Drift and Beaufort Gyre were slowed and at times reversed by the low pressure’s counterclockwise flow. The deeper currents were effected less, but the sea-ice at the surface was more responsive to the winds.
Any storm at the Pole which is lower than 970 mb is a top-ten storm, in our short history of weather maps at high latitudes, and last summer “Ralph” twice achieved such levels. The first occurred on August 16.
And the second on August 28
These two major storms did a lot to reduce the sea-ice extent, but also likely stirred the sea a lot. One thing that slows the melt of ice is that colder water can sit on top of warmer water, when that colder water is less salty (because it is from melted bergs or the Lena River.) A Gale disturbs this stratification, in one way speeding melting by bringing up the slightly warmer water from below, but in another way cooling the water as a whole, (because melting ice uses up a lot of heat.)
In any case the Laptev Sea likely had much less of a “lens” of fresh water as the September chill began, which likely meant it was slower to freeze (because it was saltier) which in turn likely meant it remained open and exposed to cold air longer, and lost more heat to the growing arctic night. When the ice did grow last autumn it likely grew over colder water, and when it melts this summer the water beneath likely will be colder and less able to assist in the melting. Or so I theorize. (This seemed to happen after a big summer storm melted much ice in 2012. When a similar summer storm occurred in 2013 nowhere near as much ice melted, likely because no stratified, warmer water was left beneath.)
As the winter proceeded “Ralph” continued to persist, in various forms, and his counter clockwise flow meant the winds along the coast of Russia continued to often be from the west. Rather than sea-ice being pushed across the Pole in the Transpolar Drift it was pushed east. At first there was no noticeable polynya at all in the Laptev Sea, and then the ice moved from the west side to the east, creating a polynya on the shores of its western boundary, which is formed by the islands of Severnaya Zemlya.
However it was at this boundary something I’d never seen before occurred. The same west winds were doing the same thing to the sea-ice in the Kara Sea, removing it from its western shores and crushing it up against its eastern shores, however there was a gap in its eastern shores called Vilkitsky Strait, and sea-ice began to squeeze through that strait and out into the Laptev Sea like toothpaste coming out of a tube. By mid January the stripe of thicker ice in the Laptev Sea was obvious.
The phenomenon continued through February
The west winds slacked off a little for a bit in March, but then resumed. This view pans back a bit. Notice the ice is thin in the west of the Kara Sea as well, and even to a degree in the East Siberian Sea. “Ralph’s” circulation may not have been constant, but it was persistent enough to create west winds right around the periphery of the Arctic Sea. Notice the ice being swept off the north coast of Greenland into Fram Strait, and, to the lower left, the ice piling up against the shores north and south of the western entrance to the Northwest Passage.
In April Ralph faded to a degree, and we can see the Laptev ice shifting up towards the Pole more.
While the situation is not back to the textbook illustration of a Transpolar Drift, it is more normal than it has been. My guess is that the conditions creating “Ralph” have faded, and those conditions likely had to do with the warmth released by the 2015 El Nino. An imbalance was created that needed to be balanced, and a meridional flow brought north the mild air that fed Ralph. Now that the lagged effects of that El Nino are in a sense used up, and we are experiencing the lagged effects of a very weak La Nina, Ralph should be less obvious….unless….
Unless part of the imbalance involves the colder-than-normal summer temperatures we have been seeing at the Pole for ten years. These summer temperatures get much less press than the warmer-than-normal warmer winter temperatures, but they seem significant to me. Because they have coincided with the sun going “quiet” I assume there is some sort of connection.
This summer will be a sort of test. The lagged extra warmth of the 2015 El Nino to some degree masked the coolness last summer, but if the theory has validity it should be obviously colder this summer, and if that occurs Ralph may gain a second wind. This time it will not be fueled so much by above-normal temperatures to the south as by below-normal temperatures at the Pole.
The most recent ice-thickness map of the Pole in some ways reminds me of 2013, as the ice does not look especially thick. If you remember Alarmists began that summer very confident the ice would be swift to go, as much was first-year “baby ice”, and also it had been fractured a lot by winter storms. This year’s ice is not as fractured, but a lot is baby ice, and relatively thin.
There is a slight formation of polynyas north and south of the western entrance to the Northwest Passage, where the ice was piled up earlier, but it is nothing like last year. Elsewhere the ice seems generally thinner than last year. (Last year to left; this year to right.)
The Laptev Sea is to the top, and a feature I dubbed “The Laptev Notch” a couple of summers ago has reformed, shown by the thinner ice of navy blue. The question is, are the waters under that ice significantly colder? It will be an area to watch, for if it melts swiftly the waters are not colder, but if the sea-ice prove stubborn and lingers we may be getting a hint about conditions under the ice. For the moment, however, that part of the arctic coast is surprisingly cold, considering the entire Siberian coast was above-normal not long ago. (The map below flips Greenland to the upper right. The Laptev Sea is to the lower left, and the gray area of the map indicates below zero temperatures. (-17°C) The New Siberian Islands are at the center of that cold, below -10°F (-23°C) which is very cold for May. )
Less obvious is the fact Svalbard, close to freezing, is actually below-normal. The way the sea-ice has crunched down against their north coast is surprising, as a warm current usually makes a slot of open water appear along their west coast, and a bit of their north coast. It is another area to watch.
Oh what the heck. I might as well hit the Weatherbell site and get Dr. Ryan Maue’s arctic anomaly map (week free trial available.)
If you are a political Alarmist, you had better focus on the icecap of Greenland, where temperatures are thirty degrees above normal (but still below freezing), for the Arctic Sea looks very different from how it looked in the dead of winter, when Ralph was sucking north surges of Atlantic moisture and the entire Pole was 20-30 degrees above normal. Now, besides the Laptev Sea and Svalbard, the Canadian Archipelago are well below normal, and the only slightly warmer areas is a patch near the Pole and the north coast of Alaska and Bering Strait. The times they are a-changing.
One thing I think is important to keep in mind is that we should expect the unexpected, for we are entering territory we have not explored. There is no shame in it. In the old days they just were honest and left part of the map blank. National Geographic could do this, when my father was a boy in 1925.
We are approaching two events we have never witnessed, with all our new-fangled gadgets, buoys and satellites. The first is the switch from a warm AMO to a cold AMO. And this switch may be knocked out of its ordinary 60 year cycle by an even grander change, “The Quiet Sun”. The sparsity of sunspots has dropped to levels unseen since the Dalton Minimum began at the very end of the 18th century.
These are actually times that should be full of excitement and discovery. It wasn’t until around 2008 that we realized Ultraviolet intensity rose as TSI dropped during a solar minimum.
When we see new things that astonish us we shouldn’t slump and pout that we were “wrong”, but rather we should revel in the wonder of it all.
Expect the unexpected, and stay tuned.
(If I get time I may later venture a prediction about this summer’s sea-ice melt, just to walk out on a limb. The short version is that I am expecting Alarmists to be disappointed, as they were in 2013.)