The New Trend in Arctic Ice

The startling Arctic Ocean ice melt of 2007 caught almost everyone by surprise. There were unusual summer weather patterns, and some thought an undersea volcanic eruption contributed to the melt, but still, the ice shrank to reach a far lower extent than most scientists thought possible.

Most people, including most scientists, thought the melt pattern of 2007 was probably a one-time event, but a similar melt pattern has followed in the three summers since, which have had relatively normal weather and no volcano. If it happens year after year, it’s not a fluke. It’s what we can expect.

This year, cargo ships are taking advantage of the melt to cross the Arctic Ocean by their choice of the Northeast and Northwest passages. While the ships are careful to dodge ice along the way, they haven’t seen much ice along the shipping lanes this month, where the surface water has warmed to Pacific-like temperatures.

The water is warm enough to swim in, according to a Norwegian team that now seems assured of completing its plan of sailing around the Arctic Ocean in one season. There is video of one crew member swimming from shore to the boat, a distance that involved several minutes of swimming. And this sailboat, the Northern Passage, isn’t the only one. A Russian yacht, the Peter I, is sailing a similar route, and is also close to completing its journey.

At the same time that the area covered by ice in late summer seems to have stabilized at a new lower level, there is a new trend. The ice thickness has declined steadily over the last four years. The sea ice on the Arctic Ocean used to consist of thin first- and second-year ice and thicker multi-year ice, but the spring ocean currents moved most of the multi-year ice to the southern part of the Arctic Ocean where it virtually all melted by early summer. For the ice to move that easily, it must already have been thinner and lighter than in years past, and now that there are only isolated patches of multi-year ice, there is little to hold it in place.

The thinner ice means that heavy icebreakers can cross the Arctic Ocean at will, regardless of season or weather. It has become problematic for scientists and explorers to cross the ice surface. There are thin spots, too thin to hold a person’s weight, and gaps in the ice even in the dead of winter.

The thinner ice and warmer ocean water means that the retreat of Arctic ice is likely to continue. One year soon, the North Pole will melt out in August or September. It just depends on the weather. And that’s not something people used to be able to say about Arctic ice.

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