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Large Fractures Spotted in Vulnerable Arctic Sea Ice

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Following more than two decades of Arctic sea ice thinning and melting, an unusual event just weeks before the start of the spring melt season is providing visual proof of how vulnerable the ice pack really is.

Animation of the ice fracture using satellite AVHRR data.
Credit: Arctic Sea Ice blog via NSIDC.

During the end of February and continuing into early March, large fractures in the sea ice were observed off the north coast of Alaska and Canada, from near Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic to Barrow, Ala., the northernmost city in the U.S.

The rapid climate change in the Arctic and sharp decline of sea ice has been attributed to manmade global warming, along with natural climate variability, and projections show the region becoming seasonally sea ice free by midcentury.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colo., this fracturing event appears to be related to a storm that passed over the North Pole on Feb. 8, 2013, creating strong off-shore ice motion. The event is unusual but not unheard of, as similar patterns were seen in early 2011 and 2008. However, the NSIDC said the fracturing this time is more extensive.

The spread of the ice fractures can be seen in a video animation from satellite imagery, provided by the NSIDC.

The NSIDC said the fracturing is likely a sign of the prevalence of young and thin sea ice, which can be disturbed more easily by weather patterns and ocean currents, and also melts more easily when exposed to warm air and ocean temperatures during the melt season. As Arctic sea ice extent has plummeted since 1979, down to a record low in September 2012, first-year ice has become much more common across the Arctic, as thick, multiyear ice has declined.

“The large area of fractured ice is located in predominantly first-year ice, which is thinner and easier to fracture than thick, multiyear ice,” the NSIDC said on its website.

Arctic sea ice extent as of March 12, 2013, along with daily ice extent data for 2012, the record low year. 2013 is shown in blue, and 2012 in green. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data.
Click on the image for a larger version. Credit: NSIDC.

Writing on his Arctic Sea Ice blog, the blogger known as Neven wrote of the fracturing event: “This, of course, is a very bad prelude to the melting season, even if there are a couple of weeks left for the ice to thicken. Those huge cracks will freeze over, but the ice will be very brittle and the first to go, probably creating open spaces between multi-year ice floes where the Sun will shine and quickly heat things up.”

Average sea ice extent for February 2013 was 378,000 square miles below the 1979 to 2000 average for the month, and was the seventh-lowest February extent in the satellite record. However, the Arctic gained a larger amount of sea ice during the month than average, even though it still wound up with less ice overall compared to normal.

According to the NSIDC, through 2013, February sea ice extent has declined at a rate of 2.9 percent per decade compared to the long-term average. This represents an overall reduction of more than 606,000 square miles from 1979 to 2013, which is equivalent to more than twice the area of the state of Texas. 

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Comments

By Cryos Peer
on March 13th, 2013

Hello Andrew,
Please correct your credit above:
“Animation of the ice fracture using satellite AVHRR data.”
Credit: “A-Team” and the Arctic Sea Ice Blog:
http://neven1.typepad.com/blog/2013/03/the-cracks-of-dawn.html

The NSIDC properly credits this animation on their website:
http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/2013/03/a-fractured-maximum/

Thank you.

Reply to this comment

By Andrew (NYC)
on March 13th, 2013

Animation credit has been fixed. Thanks.

Reply to this comment

By Ranga Myneni (Boston)
on March 14th, 2013

Climate change is real and we must take an educated approach to deal with it. Pathfinders need to inform the general population about the realities in a neutral tone. I am making an effort with a petition directed to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon at https://yourclimatechange.org/.

Those who are interested in the cause, please join hands with me in my attempt to protect the Earth from anthropogenic climate change. Please sign the petition and share the page with your friends, family and colleagues who might be interested.

Thanks
-Prof. Ranga Myneni

Reply to this comment

By Jim Hunt (Exeter/Devon/EX6 7YD/UK)
on March 14th, 2013

Hi Andrew,

I figure any interested readers of your article would also be interested in the remarkably similar images in my own article of February 27th:

http://econnexus.org/arctic-se…

Here’s my latest take (including the latest images and the very same “video”) on the continuing story of “The Ice Cap Crack’d”:

http://econnexus.org/projects/...

For even more recent and relevant information see also:

https://twitter.com/jim_hunt

Best wishes,

Jim

Reply to this comment

By Debi Daniels (Palmer, ak, 99645)
on March 14th, 2013

Is anyone talking about the recent radical change in the arctic ozone layer, and its potential as a factor in the ice melting? In 2011 it was reported in April by BBC news that the hole had increased from 30 to 40% alarming scientists. Then in October it was reported ( same author, Richard black of the bbc news) to have increased to 80%. It doubled in six onthe, and summer months too, when ozone is not supposed to degrade as the mechanism for this happens at -78 degrees. If 80% of the ozone is gone, this would result in 160% increase in uv light. Does it his increase in light affect the sea ice as it did the trees in Alaska? Last summer the uv light was so intense that a lot of plants were burned, literlally went crispy even though it rained almost everyday. Entire hillsides went brown. All species were affected but some were more vulnerable than others. On bushy trees like willow, the burn was only on the tops of the bushes, the skyward side. On airy trees like birch the burn was throughout. If the entire northern boreal forest dies, the amount of carbon released, 703 Pg, is enough to take the co2 from the present 395 to about 800 ppm, in just the few years it takes to decomposes. This is probably a feedback loop perhaps caused from thunderheads having too much energy and carrying water into the stratosphere where there should be none. Or it could be from the exponentially increased methane being released which also destroys ozone. Regardless, the ozone is disappearing fast in the north and the full reprocussions of this will not be known for some time.

Reply to this comment

By William Hoy (Bailey, CO 80421)
on March 14th, 2013

There always have been fractures. That’s why there are pressure ridges in the ice. Look at pictures from before the time that warmers began claiming warming.

Reply to this comment

By Jim Hunt (Exeter/Devon/EX6 7YD/UK)
on March 14th, 2013

@William - Sure “there always have been fractures”. Now you go find some pictures from another February/March to show me that look anything like what the satellites are currently revealing. I promise I’ll look at them with great interest!

Jim

Reply to this comment

By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on March 14th, 2013

Debi:  Your description of the effect of the high UV levels on plants in your part of Alaska grabbed my attention.  I have never been to Alaska and that’s something I would never have imagined. It sounds a little hazardous too. Anyway I am curious to know the answer to your question too. What you describe suggests that browning of vegetation by enhanced UV levels can produced a significant reduction in local albedo at least by you – and therefore presumably over a much wider area too. But also more solar UV means more energy reaching the surface. So then how much more energy is that and just how much of that also might be contributing to incremental Arctic as well as Antarctic warming / ice melt?  For instance, ice exhibits strong UV absorption at wavelengths below 170nm.  (I just looked it up.) That’s well into the kind of wavelength range that is normally otherwise blocked by the ozone layer.

Reply to this comment

By Phil (Calgary AB)
on March 14th, 2013

@William, of course there has always been fractures, it’s the physics,the stress and strain, of the sea ice and large storm systems moving over them that cause the fractures, as well as tides. The point here is that because of the large reduction in multiyear sea ice (MYI) and subsequent replacement of it with first year sea ice (FYI). FYI is much thinner than MYI ice, and at similar latitudes to those in the new imagery sea ice is typically 6ft thick +/- a few metres. This replacement of thick MYI with thin FYI because of year-round Arctic warming is why this recent event is so large in extent, and may become more common as MYI is replaced by FYI.
What hasn’t happened before, as you put it, “warmers began claiming warming”, is the massive loss in summer sea ice extent, a record low that has been broken several times in the last decade, which has undeniably resulted in the replacement of MYI with thinner FYI. If you can provide evidence that says otherwise in terms of this overall change in Arctic sea ice thickness I will be interested to see it.

@Dave, you are right in that snow and ice reflects large amounts of UV, so it’s decline in extent will have significant effects on the land surface and on plants. These links may help answer your question:
http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/UVB/uvb_radiation2.php
http://plantsinaction.science.uq.edu.au/edition1/?q=content/12-2-3-ultraviolet-radiation-and-plant-biology

Reply to this comment

By Jim Hunt (Exeter/Devon/EX6 7YD/UK)
on March 15th, 2013

Debi/Dave,

I’m no expert in these matters but you got my attention, so here’s the BBC’s take:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-15105747

on this bit of research:

http://ozone.unep.org/Publications/nature10556.pdf

The records for Barrow don’t look too terrifying though:

http://tinyurl.com/barrowO3

You need to choose the “Total Ozone” options. Apparently less than 220 counts as “a hole”.

Jim

Reply to this comment

By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on March 15th, 2013

Jim & Phil: Thanks for the references and responses. I did a bit more reading. This is not my area but I am curious about these things and you Jim clearly have a specialized interest.

Logically, reductions in the thickness of the local ozone layer will incrementally act to increase the net magnitude of surface solar energy or UV – in the A, B and even C regions. There will therefore be increased dissipation via resulting albedo changes in vegetation on land (browning in Alaska) and other interactions. However the Arctic sea ice question is the original focus here. So, taking it a bit further in that context, ice is virtually transparent to UVA and B (http://www.atmos.washington.edu/~sgw/PAPERS/2006_icemcx.pdf ). Therefore increased surface UV fluxes (ignoring ice impurities) will largely tend to emerge on the underside of the floating ice at the sea interface. This suggests a potential for sub-ice UV / biological interactions. I mention this because there have been reports that the undersurface of Arctic sea ice is a biologically rich ecosystem. We now need a marine biologist to comment…

To add to the collection, I found this site which gives maps: http://exp-studies.tor.ec.gc.ca/e/ozone/ozone.htm

Reply to this comment

By David Leithauser (DeLand, FL 32724)
on March 15th, 2013

Debi:

Although I am not an expert in this subject, it is my understanding that the increase in UV light due to the hole in the ozone layer (or the thinning of the ozone layer) does not directly contribute significantly to the melting of the ice, or any other warming effect. UV does not tend to produce as much heating as IR (Infrared) does. UV does, however, have a direct effect of killing cells of any living organism, which would account for the browning of the leaves. In general, global warming is not caused by an increase in light of any wavelength entering the atmosphere. It is caused by certain gases (mostly CO2) absorbing the light that has always entered the atmosphere and trapping it as heat. Without these gases, much more of this light (mostly in the IR range) would simply be reflected back into space. Of course, as you point out, if the UV kills vegetation then the resulting release of CO2 would increase heating. I would be particularly concerned about UV light killing off the algae and plankton in the sea itself, thus destroying the entire food chain in the sea. A massive die-off of sea life would release an enormous amount of CO2 and methane.

Reply to this comment

By Jim Hunt (Exeter/Devon/EX6 7YD/UK)
on March 17th, 2013

The inability to include clickable links here has led me to continue the ozone conversation over on the Arctic Sea Ice Forum:

http://forum.arctic-sea-ice.net/index.php/topic,132.0.html

I hope that’s OK with all concerned?

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