climate change

The Arctic’s Strongest Sea Ice Just Broke Up

An iceberg stranded near the village of Innaarsuit, in the Avannaata Municipality, northwestern Greenland. Photo: Karl Petersen/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

Everyone thought that the sea ice off Greenland’s north coast would stay together forever — or, at least, for as long as such things ever last.

And it wasn’t hard to see why: That stretch of Arctic sea ice was the oldest and strongest that anyone had ever known. Through thick and thin, summer and winter, the ice had held together. And its bond appeared to be growing stronger with the years, as the Transpolar Drift Stream brought more and more chunks of Siberian ice into its family. Climate scientists took to calling it “the last ice area” — on the assumption that, when all other sea ice had drifted apart, Greenland’s north coast would be the last one keeping it together.

But time changes a sea ice. And none of us are immune to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune — nor those of anthropogenic carbon emissions. Extraordinary spikes in Arctic temperatures in February and early August of this year left the ice vulnerable to winds, which have now begun blowing them apart. As the Guardian reports:

Ice is easier to blow around as a result of a warming trend, which has accelerated over the past 15 years. “The thinning is reaching even the coldest part of the Arctic with the thickest ice. So it’s a pretty dramatic indication of the transformation of the Arctic sea ice and Arctic climate[,]” [said Walt Meier of the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.]

“Scary,” wrote Thomas Lavergne, a scientist at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, in a retweet of a satellite-gif of the blue water penetrating white ice and exposing hundreds of miles of the Greenland coastline.

He said this would flush chunks of thicker ice out through the Fram or Nares Straits into warmer southern waters.

“I cannot tell how long this open water patch will remain open, but even if it closes in few days from now, the harm will be done: the thick old sea ice will have been pushed away from the coast, to an area where it will melt more easily,” he added.

Those who know the coastal sea ice best expect it to get back together eventually. But that reconciliation could be delayed by the forces unleashed by their separation. Specifically, the gap that’s opened up between the ice will increase solar heating of the water column, pushing it further apart.

But the breakup is most alarming for its broader implications. The revelation of the famously solid sea ice’s fragility lends credence to the idea that man-made warming will unleash reinforcing climate feedbacks that could tip the planet into a “hothouse” state.

In other words: If the oldest, thickest sea ice in the Arctic can’t stay together, what hope is there for the rest of us?

The Arctic’s Strongest Sea Ice Just Broke Up