5 June 2009

The Big Melt Speeds Up in The Big White Quiet

Posted by Dan Satterfield

I’m very lucky to be one of the few people on this planet who has spent time well north of the Arctic Circle. There is a big difference between seeing the High Arctic on the Discovery Channel, and actually being there. People have asked me what it was like and I tell them what surprised me most wasn’t the fact that it never got dark, and that you could see the sun in the northern sky at midnight.

That IS weird, and if you do not follow your watch, you get your day’s and “nights” all turned around. What surprised me the most, however, was the quiet. The absolute quiet. It was deafening.

Sea ice at Midnight in Baffin Bay- My photo ©

Walk outside your house right now. If you live in a city, you will hear all kinds of noises. If you live in the country, not as many. You might even live in a very sparsely populated area, and hear no man made noises at all. If you wait an hour though, you will hear a high flying jet pass by. A small plane in the distance perhaps.

In reality, it’s very difficult to find a place (In America at least, and much of the rest of the populated world) where you can stand outside and not hear some human made sound in the space of an hour or two. Go ahead and try it.

The Arctic was called the “great white quiet” by one explorer and it’s very true. When I think of the Arctic, it’s not of the ice bergs in Baffin Bay, or the Inuit of Qaanaaq, Greenland, or even the magnificent Polar Bear that comes to mind. It’s the quiet. That lonely sound of wind and ice. The sound of the Earth for much of it’s history. As far as mother Earth is concerned, Life on land is a fairly recent event.

Arctic Sea ice last 3 months

Arctic Sea ice last 3 months. June ice levels are approaching a record low.

We are not the first species to radically change the way the earth works. The evolution of cyanobacteria changed our atmosphere, from one with little oxygen, to the one we have now. That likely happened about 2,400 million years ago. Most of the oxygen that keeps you alive comes from these microscopic ocean dwellers still. Not from trees and grass.

We humans, on the other hand, of doubled the Methane in the atmosphere, and will soon double the CO2, in the short span of around 3 centuries. Just a blink of the eye on geologic time.

The Arctic sea ice melt has made big headlines over the last few years. I have written about it several times here. There are actually two stories here. The aerial coverage of the ice is most commonly mentioned, but the other big story is the thickness of the ice. This gets far less coverage.

The thickness of the ice is a good indicator of how much will melt by late Summer. The ice is thinning rapidly and for that reason, many researchers believe we will see another record low in Arctic ice, within a few years, and perhaps this year.

Thinning Arctic Sea Ice from NSIDC

Thinning Arctic Sea Ice from NSID

Inuits refer to ice by it’s age. “Old” ice is ice that has survived several summers, but young ice is left over from the last winter. Young ice usually melts in the Summer. The amount of old ice is a good indicator of how much will melt in Summer. Look at the images below. You can see that another large melt of Arctic ice is coming.

This past Spring the ice melt was actually slower than in the past few years. There are a lot of factors that have a bearing on the amount of summer ice. Weather patterns and ocean currents are the major ones.

The melt has sped up rapidly in the past few weeks, and the thin ice may melt rapidly now. The lowest ice on record was recorded in 2007. Some of the top researchers at the Nat. Snow Ice Data Center think it may disappear almost completely, some August day before 2050. Update: Heard today that renowned ice expert Dr. Mark Serreze has been appointed Director of the NSIDC. He was kind enough to drive to Denver, and do a satellite interview with me in Oct. 2007.

The melt has increased rapidly in May and is approaching levels seen in 2007. Not good news. The ice is central to the way of life of the Inuit. We live off the land. They live off of the ice. You have to look very hard to find any climate change deniers in the High Arctic. They will tell you to just look around.

It’s THEIR ice, and it’s disappearing.