The 'big melt' at the roof of the world

 
Polar ice Polar ice appears to be in retreat

Related Stories

Dig into the history of polar exploration and you might wonder what all the fuss is about with this month's news of a record sea-ice melt in the Arctic.

In 1893, the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen ventured through the "titanic forces" of the ice, amid the "howlings and thunderings" of the floes splitting around his ship, the Fram, but then found himself in a stretch of open water.

The same had happened the day before. And this was within striking distance of the North Pole - Nansen eventually reached 86 degrees North, further than anyone at the time. And no one back then had even thought of global warming.

The break in the ice surrounding Nansen's ship was not just some narrow channel. It "stretched far away towards the northern horizon". Naturally, he wanted to head that way.

Faced with the same scene now, the pressing question for us would be whether that open water might stretch all the way to the roof of the world.

Start Quote

The prospect of the Pole not being a permanent icy wilderness but instead a sea exposed in summer has been brought significantly closer by the size of this year's melt.”

End Quote

The prospect of the Pole (also known as the Geographic North Pole or "True North") not being a permanent icy wilderness but instead a sea exposed in summer has been brought significantly closer by the size of this year's melt - and it would mark a monumental change.

But Nansen had a different question in mind. "Could it be land?" he wondered. Even then, a little over a century ago, it was still conceivable that some mythical polar continent was waiting to be discovered. Instead, there was no land; only more ice.

It's easy to forget how recently the Arctic has been explored and how recently scientists have tried to comprehend it.

The Pole was only reached in 1926 when that other Norwegian hero, Roald Amundsen, flew an airship there from the outpost of Ny Alesund on Svalbard, which I visited earlier this month.

An earlier claim by the American explorer Robert Peary is widely discounted.

Big annual variations

The reality of the Arctic is that the ice is not consistent. Nansen noticed it heaving with the tides. Atlases convey a solid sheet of unbroken white but this frozen ocean is constantly shifting, breaking apart, reforming, its condition varying massively year by year.

And the total dark of the polar winter guarantees that much of the sea will freeze whatever happens. That is sometimes forgotten in all the talk of a record melt. The question is the fate of the ice in summertime: how rapidly it melts and how extensively.

Gaps in the ice are not significant, nor are very short bursts of melting. They did not help the generations of explorers who for several centuries tried and failed to sail through the Northwest Passage, a sea route linking the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Canadian arctic.

Polar bear Ice levels are not consistent

Even in 2007, when the previous record for melting was set, and satellite pictures showed the passage to be entirely clear of ice, there was only a short period of open water.

When I sailed through the passage on a Canadian icebreaker, the Amundsen, in October that year, we encountered huge floes of thick ice.

The warming had indeed achieved massive melting. But it had also dislodged vast chunks of ice from around the Pole and they had drifted south into our path. The clanging of metal on ice resounded through the hull. The Arctic is not straightforward.

What matters is the overall pattern of freezing and melting, and how that is changing.

In southern Greenland, back in July 2004, a local man - Ferdinand Egede - dug into the soft earth of a field to show me something he'd never expected to see in his lifetime: potatoes.

They were creamy-white and unblemished, the fruit of a warming Arctic. Now the newspapers say Greenlanders are even growing strawberries.

In Alaska, in September 2008, the US Coast Guard had just started operations in the Arctic and we joined a C-130 patrol flight to Barrow.

On board, a rather macho admiral bellowed over the intercom that he didn't care about global warming - but his job was to keep watch over the waters around the US and there was now a lot of water where there used to be ice.

Scientists stunned

None of this means the ice will vanish overnight. Earlier this month, at Ny Alesund, I went aboard the Norwegian Polar Institute's research vessel, the Lance.

It had been investigating the area between Svalbard and Greenland, known as the Fram Strait, named after Nansen's ship. The strait is the exit route from the Arctic Ocean, a current carrying the floes south into the Atlantic. The scientists were stunned by the overall melt across the region but much of their time had been spent surrounded by ice.

So is it scaremongering to report on this new record? Several people have suggested I should mention how the sea ice around Antarctica has expanded this year. It has, but Antarctica is a continent isolated by an ocean with its own unique and incredibly cold weather.

Start Quote

We do not know when the day will come when a ship might sail across the top of the world without bumping into any ice at all.”

End Quote

The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land where even small rises in temperature can cross the threshold between freezing and thawing so it's far more responsive to change.

Others say I'm underplaying the risks, that the record set this summer is tantamount to a planetary meltdown, an emergency.

I think we should be guided by the hard facts of observation. We know very reliably that the extent of melting has increased massively not just this year but also that it is part of a trend of decline in the sea ice over the past three decades.

This year's melt has left the Arctic with half the ice it has had on average in Septembers of the past 30 years. By a rough reckoning, that difference amounts to a dozen United Kingdoms.

We also know there is good evidence that the remaining ice is getting thinner and therefore weaker. But we do not know when the day will come when a ship might sail across the top of the world without bumping into any ice at all. We are heading that way, and faster than expected; a profoundly important prospect - but we cannot be sure if it will be as soon as this decade or later.

Nansen wrote of "moonlit vapour rising from open water". Satellite pictures could show him the vast tracts of ocean where the floes have disappeared. There was too much ice for him to reach the Pole. He'd have a far better chance now.

 
David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

The largest vessel the world has ever seen

An enormous ship is being built to collect and liquefy gas at sea for the first time.

Read full article

More on This Story

Related Stories

Comments

This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
 
  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 43.

    … For the next two decades, natural variability will trump any direct effects from AGW by a long shot .. an ‘ice free’ Arctic is not some sort of ‘tipping point.’ A number of recent model studies find that the loss of summer sea ice cover is highly reversible I am not seeing a big rationale for climate catastrophe if the see ice melts.” http://judithcurry.com

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 42.

    Re 41: You still need icebreakers even if the ice is melting and the ice is melting according to satellite photos.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 41.

    Looks like someone forgot to tell the Russians that all the ice is melting

    Russia to build biggest nuclear-powered icebreaker
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-19576266

    The only possible alternative explanation for building the biggest nuclear icebreaker EVER... is that the ice is not melting

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 40.

    This article http://www.geotop.ca/pdf/devernalA/Kinnard_et_al_nature_2011.pdf indicates that decreased Arctic sea ice is a sign of a cold period. Specifically, it says that ice coverage decreased during the Little Ice Age and the Dark Age Cold Period.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 39.

    Black Pearl... check out the TIMESCALE over which the polar ice caps have fluctuated, there is only one magnitude of organisms that can expliot that at this kind of rate:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SzcJidnxG4c

    and, honey.... 0.009% by volume is a HUGE increase, over this short a time. We're talking about % of a PLANET's atmosphere, pet, not your bathtub! LOLOLOL!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 38.

    Scientists have been telling us for decades that this was likely to start happening soon.

    Through those decades Climate Change Deniers chose to believe it was all a hoax, designed to extract more taxes from them, Romney still tries

    Only now I can just hear them whining in chorus "It's all the fault of the Commies / the Muslims / the Gays"

    Face it:

    OIL + COAL + GAS = CHICKENS + HOME + ROOST!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 37.

    AI expert Judith Curry says “‘ice free’ as commonly used doesn’t mean free of ice (but) ice extent below 1 M sq km (current minimum extent 3.5 M sq km). This definition is used because it is very difficult to melt the thick ice around the Canadian Archipelago. And the issue of ‘ice free’ in the 21st century is pretty much a non-issue if you require this thick ice to disappear ..

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 36.

    So, the Arctic ice formation is teh engine of the gulf stream, no or less ice means a weaker gulf stream which means less warming effect for us in the UK. I see some pretty bitter winters for GB ahead!

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 35.

    #10,11, 20 MangoChutney

    Thank you for your media references confiming that global warming has been underway through much of the 20th Century. This is to be expected since we have been increasing atmosperic CO2 steadily since 1880 from its preindustrial 280ppm to 390ppm today.
    For those who like figures, that is an increase of 39% or 110ppm in 130 years.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 34.

    We are part of a dynamic system. Even without us, it would change. If we are part of it we are also a part of the change. The only way to remove the human component from the equation is - get rid of humans or ensure that we re-integrate into the ecosystem (which would still change regardless). Get used to it.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 33.

    28.rdunne
    Incredible to read that people still think this is part of some kind of cycle when the evidence show so starkly that the rate of change is beyond anything scientists had anticipated. The biggest threat to our collective future is the belief that this is something we don't need to worry about.
    ***
    Its also Incredible that people can't believe in earths past history

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 32.

    Mango refer to my earlier posts, we are putting more CO2 in the atmosphere, it does keep in more of the suns energy, More energy means more storms, ocean current changes, ice melting, wind pattern changes thus warmer temperatures in some places, colder in others. It will have an effect, I'm not saying we can reverse it but we can't deny our input to the system. 300 to 400 ppm CO2 in 50 years! Wow

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 31.

    MC - Every time one of these articles appear, you post links "proving" it was warmer in the past. Every time, it is explained that newspaper articles reporting on isolated incidents are no match for decades of research.

    BP - Every time, you claim the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is insignificant. Every time, it is explained to you that O3 makes up even less, yet is hugely significant.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 30.

    Anybody feel we're on the Titanic or Air France flight 447 ?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 29.

    Which ever way you look at it, with the majority over the human race in denial, the world population rocketing and using up resources at an ever increasing rate I think it is safe to say the prospect of an open sea is a certainty.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 28.

    Incredible to read that people still think this is part of some kind of cycle when the evidence show so starkly that the rate of change is beyond anything scientists had anticipated. The biggest threat to our collective future is the belief that this is something we don't need to worry about.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 27.

    "20.
    MangoChutney
    @13 So you're saying natural?"
    =====
    No I'm saying you don't appear to understand the science! Temperature is meaningless on its own. Out of interest what are your scientific qualifications?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 26.

    24.Gavin
    this is nothing other than a huge wake up call - unfortunately one we will not hear, but will instead assume it to be an "oppurtunity" to drive us further down the road to oblivion. "its always happened in the past", but not driven by us, nor so quickly with such grave consequences in the very near future.
    ****
    If you're correct why is Germany building 23 coal fired power stations

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 25.

    I think it is safe to say, what with a rocketing world population, islands of plastic bags in both oceans, weather events becoming more extreme, and many of the human race in denial and over a billion people going to bed (sic) hungry & malnourished, amongst a list too long to include here, the prospect of an open sea is likely.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 24.

    this is nothing other than a huge wake up call - unfortunately one we will not hear, but will instead assume it to be an "oppurtunity" to drive us further down the road to oblivion. "its always happened in the past", but not driven by us, nor so quickly with such grave consequences in the very near future.

 

Page 1 of 3

 

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.