Arctic ice melting rapidly, but some ‘signs’ are false alarms

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A team from NASA collects water for research projects from Arctic ice floes. (Kathryn Hansen / NASA photo / Alaska Dispatch)
A team from NASA collects water for research projects from Arctic ice floes.
(Kathryn Hansen / NASA photo / Alaska Dispatch)

Recently, a webcam reportedly stationed on a buoy near the North Pole in the high Arctic caught an unusual snapshot of life there: a standing pool of water, about a foot to two feet deep, isolated in the midst of the permanent ice found in one of the world’s most northerly climes.

Of course, some were quick to latch onto this jarring sight as the most recent example of climate change and global warming at Earth’s upper latitudes. And while the Arctic is undeniably warming — and at a rate faster than the rest of the globe — such single anecdotes are little more than climate change scarecrows — false, flimsy examples that serve only to worry.

In fact, water regularly pools on ice caps. In August 2011, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration webcam tipped over due to melt underneath the camera’s platform. Interest in the most recent “North Pole lake” was such that researchers at the University of Washington Applied Physics Laboratory — who operate the webcam — issued a statement clarifying the melted water surrounding the buoy.

“The formation of melt ponds has always been a key feature of the summer season on sea ice,” the statement said, before going into a lengthy explainer about how such ponds come to form, before getting down to brass tacks and addressing the question: Was the pond caused by global warming?

“No, not specifically,” the researchers wrote. “These melt ponds are a normal part of the seasonal cycle of the sea ice. With respect to global warming, we are more concerned when we see warm air temperatures in the winter that inhibit ice growth and the appearance of heat in the ocean that would melt the bottom surface of the ice.”

The recent hullabaloo over the North Pole melt pond is similar to what happened back in July when bloggers and other media latched onto a near-cloudless satellite image of Alaska, a once-in-a-blue-moon photograph taken during this summer’s record-breaking heat wave. In that case, as well, pundits ignored long-term trends and instead relied on a single poignant image to make their point.

Meanwhile NOAA’s 2012 “State of the Climate” report, released this week, highlighted another record-breaking instance in the history of the Arctic — last year’s low ice extent, which surpassed the previous record with weeks left in the summer melting season. Global surface temperatures in 2012 were about 0.3-degrees above the 1981-2010 average, making 2012 among the 10 hottest on record globally.

Meanwhile, last year’s Arctic sea ice extent joined other recent years as among the most dismal. Oddly enough, the one region not suffering from extended ice decline is the Bering Sea in winter, which has frozen fast and caused problems for industry vessels and subsistence hunters into the summer months.

The Arctic ice pack this year so far is looking more promising, with the National Snow and Ice Data Center reporting that melt was a little behind the record-shattering 2012 rate, at least in early July. The center also warned, though, that July is the most aggressive month in terms of ice melt, and air temperatures in the first half of July were 2-9 degrees above normal across much of the Arctic.

Curiously enough, despite that epic heat wave around Alaska, including one of the warmest months on record for Barrow, America’s northernmost city, the ice in the waters surrounding Alaska remained the most stubborn in the entire Arctic Ocean.

Still, despite the often-confusing information, it’s apparent that the Earth as a whole is gradually growing warmer, and the effects are particularly pronounced in the Arctic. The snow-and-ice center recently began using a new, updated average by which it will measure sea ice extent, since the years since the millennium have see an such a steep decline in overall levels, skewing the numbers lower, creating a “new normal.”

NASA warned of “new normals” on a broader climate scale just last month, especially in the Arctic:

NASA scientists and others around the world are tracking these profound changes and trying to understand what the future may hold. In some cases, Arctic systems may be reaching ‘tipping points’ — critical moments in time where a small change has large, potentially irreversible impacts. Examples of tipping points include the melting of permafrost in the Alaskan tundra and the acidification of the oceans. In other cases, where it may be difficult to quantify a particular tipping point, whole systems are racing toward dramatic transformations, such as the melting of sea ice and the decay of the Greenland ice sheet.

While these instances of unusual weather and extreme examples of a thawing Arctic are powerful illustrations of the possible effects of climate change, it’s important to realize that they are often just one tile in a mosaic that, when seen as a whole, represents a more complete picture of the Arctic’s adaptations — and where the real threats lie.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com

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