Arctic Sea Ice Tops Out at Fifth Lowest on Record
Sept. 17, 2012
French photographer Samuel Blanc has been leading tours to Svalbard, Norway's archipelago in the Arctic, since 2007. This year the reduced sea ice extent allowed his expedition aboard the 12-passenger Polaris to circumnavigate the northern islands in early July rather than mid-August. Climate change is having a direct impact on the unique ecosystem isolated on these islands more than 400 miles north of Europe. In the following photos, Blanc gives us a tour of life on the archipelago's largest island, Spitsbergen. You can see more of his work at www.sblanc.com.
In west Spitsbergen, Little Auks, such as those pictured here, and other birds aren't safe on the cliffs. Hungry polar bears have learned to climb the steep gradients in search of food.
Polar Bears and Bleeding Glaciers
The dissolved iron seen in this glacier may help fight climate change. As the iron washes into the northern seas, it can help fertilize phytoplankton blooms that draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
As global warming melts permafrost in the arctic, more carbon is released into the atmosphere. Meanwhile areas of tundra are also seeing a rise in fires.
The vast stretch of open water due to thinning of the Arctic sea ice is forcing walruses to often crowd together on beaches.
This bearded seal has found a safe spot away from polar bears and sharks. Many seals however also snooze in the water, where they are at risk of becoming of meal for the Greenland shark, the world's slowest shark.
Only three percent of the total population of arctic fox are called "Blue fox" and unlike the rest of the population, these blue critters don't turn white in the winter.
These foxes are showing their summer colors.
The layer of ice that covers the Arctic Ocean has reached its maximum extent for the year. After several months of expanding over the cold Arctic winter, it has now begun its spring retreat.
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), Arctic sea ice reached its seasonal maximum on March 21, after undergoing a brief surge mid-month. It topped out at 14.91 million square kilometers (5.76 million square miles), which is the fifth lowest winter maximum in the satellite record. The lowest maximum yet recorded is 14.63 million square kilometers, or 5.65 million square miles, in 2011.
The loss of Arctic sea ice is a major concern for scientists because it provides essential habitat for species like polar bears and ringed seals and because its disappearance could alter the entire Arctic marine ecosystem by removing essential algae, which forms the basis of the food web.
Ice also reflects sunlight. As it melts, sea ice is replaced by darker ocean, which absorbs that sunlight, creating further warming. And heat rising from a warmer Arctic Ocean may disrupt atmospheric circulation, prompting frigid winters such as that experienced by much of the northern and eastern United States recently.
This year’s figure looked set to be much lower until surface winds helped to spread out the ice pack in the Barents Sea, where ice cover had been anomalously low all winter. Northeasterly winds also helped push the ice pack southward in the Bering Sea, another area where until the ice cover had until then been very low.
Encouragingly, the volume of winter ice increased relative to last year, because of an increase in multiyear ice. One of the reasons scientists speak of Arctic sea ice being in a “death spiral” is that, as the region has warmed and the ice cap has retreated, much of the older, thicker ice that normally survived two or more years has melted, leaving newer, thinner ice that melts more quickly. But the proportion of Arctic sea ice that is multiyear ice increased from 30 percent 12 months ago to 43 percent this year.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean less ice will melt this summer. After all, that’s still a smaller percentage of multiyear ice than existed at the start of the melt season in 2007, which concluded with a then-record low minimum extent. And a large area of multiyear ice has drifted to the southern Beaufort Sea and East Siberian Sea, where warm conditions are likely to exist later in the year.
In fact, as NSIDC’s Julienne Stroeve and colleagues point out in a new paper in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, while the medium-to-long-term declining trend is clear, scientists’ ability to make season-to-season, and year-to-year, predictions on sea ice patterns remains low.
But the early signs for the summer aren’t promising. Stroeve told Andrea Thompson of Climate Central that, since reaching its maximum, the sea ice extent has been declining rapidly. “It’s looking pretty steep,” she said.
Photo: A satellite image shows the Arctic sea ice extent on March 21, 2014. Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC)