ARCTIC SEA ICE –Point Barrow’s Ice–

With many eyes focused on the the Northabout, as it tries to battle through the ice at the western entrance of the Laptev Sea, some are missing a wonderful chance to study the ice at the far side of the Pole. Skies have been clear, and north winds brought ice ashore at Barrow, which I missed because I was too engrossed in the Northabout’s travails. I only managed to save a picture of the final bits of ice before they washed away.

Barrow Webcam 0805 05_22_23_24_ABCam_20160805_132000

For a few more days you will be able to see the sea-ice on the shore and further out to sea in the ten-day-animation of the Barrow Webcam here:

What fascinated me was how substantial the bergs appeared. From outer space no individual bergs could be seen, and the water looked like it had milky swirls, but some of the bergs looked as tall as a man, when they grounded.

Then, when the bergs were blown west and out to sea by southeast winds, I wondered where they had gone. Temperatures can get quite hot over the Tundra, and though they cool towards the coast, during some summers Barrow has seen temperatures in the 70’s in late July and early August. Sea-ice is liable to melt swiftly when it gets close to shore. Had this ice melted?

This is where the Explorer comes in handy, for it allows you to zoom in from outer space. It can be found here:

Zooming in on Point Barrow, the ice can still be seen, lurking not far off shore:

The problem then becomes telling the ice from the clouds. In the above shot there are a few wisps of cirrus over the sandbars along the coast, and a triangle of high cloud to the bottom right, but all the other milky wisps are ice. They look slushy and even ephemeral from afar, but face to face they become far more meaningful and substantial. From outer space the sea barely seems to have any ice, but down on the surface in a small craft the seas seem far more “ice covered.”

This leads to all sorts of bickering about what constitutes an ice-covered sea. 15% ice-extent seems to be the accepted line between ice-covered and ice-free, though I would not like to try to cross water with 10% ice coverage. For one thing, as the above picture shows, the ice is not evenly dispersed but, just as the sand forms sandbars along the coast, the ice seems to form ice-bars out to sea, and they could definitely bar a small boat’s way.

Another subject often debated is how much sunshine the open water is absorbing. The water looks nice and black in the above picture, and as if it would suck up sunshine, but when the sun gets low on the horizon water, especially when it is glassy, reflects sunshine even more efficiently than white snow. Then, when the sun dips below the horizon, as it is starting to do each day in Barrow, open water loses heat more efficiently than water sheltered by an igloo-roof of sea-ice. In other words, the “abedo” equation is more complex than Al Gore described, with open water gaining heat when the sun is highest and never sets, and then losing heat as the sun sinks lower and sets.

Right now we are finishing a time when the North Pole actually gains more heat than it loses. We are beginning to lose more heat than we gain. From now until the sun sets in September the thaws grow shorter, fewer, and more far-between. Most of the melt comes from below.

This “basal melt” is tricky, and I am constantly being fooled by it. It has to do with the temperature of the water under the ice, but we have too few sensors under the ice to have a good idea of when, how and why it varies. And it obviously does vary, because sometimes the “ice-bars” visible in the ¬†picture above can vanish with startling rapidity, while on other occasions they just persist until they refreeze.

So far this summer we have seen the latter more than the former. Last April the Alaskan coast got off to such a speedy start, in terms of becoming ice-free, that those who root for an ice-free Pole were gloating and chortling. Even when temperatures were still well below freezing off-shore winds had created huge Polynyas of open water both to the west and to the east of Barrow, and if the sea-ice had melted in the manner it did in 2012…but it didn’t. Instead it just floated about refusing to melt, and even came back to the ice-free coast and littered the beaches. The nerve!

The last variable involves how cloudy the Pole has been. Not that Barrow ever gets much sun, tending to be cloudy more than half the time, but further out towards the Pole it is usually sunnier, but this past year a meridional pattern has brought storm after storm to the Pole, basically smashing the ice to smithereens.

The weather patterns up over the Pole deserve more study, for they seem to break laws obeyed by patterns further south. Often I’m baffled by their behavior. In fact the triangle of cloud at the bottom of the above shot is worthy an hour of wonder all its own, as it is part of a puzzling cloud formation best seen by taking a few steps back, and viewing Barrow from deeper out in space:

At this distance some of the thinner ice-bars are all but invisible, but we also see bigger bergs, looking like chips from outer space, but the size of several Manhattans, further out to sea. Then, when we step out even further, Barrow becomes tiny as we see a bigger picture:

At this point the discussions can become a bit silly, for if you are rooting for an ice-free Pole you spot that area of open water well out into the pack-ice, and that becomes your focus:

However if you are like me you simply shift the focus, and win the argument. You point out the subject under discussion was not a ice-free area in the Arctic Sea, but rather that the entire sea would be ice-free. You point at an area further south, back towards Barrow, and in a somewhat impolite tone state, “That does not look very ice-free to me.”

In the end I can’t help but think this will be another summer that frustrates everyone. There is still a lot of basal melt to go, so there may be some surprises, but I think we will wind up with too much ice to make the Alarmists happy, but too little to make the Skeptics happy.

And in our preoccupation with area and extent, we may totally miss something wonderful. We could be using the wrong metric, and attempting to smell a rose with a microphone. For, when I look at the ice, it seems wonderfully smashed up. The real news could be hidden in the change in the storm tracks, and in the meridional pattern, and we might be completely missing it.