(Image source: Canadian Weather Office)
It began in February. Just north of Alaska a major section of sea ice began to fracture. The breaks spread rapidly, eventually reaching the coast of northern Canada and covering a large, swirling, section of the Beaufort Sea.
Then the break-up paused. For a day or two, it seemed to abate, held at bay by the last remaining thick ice resting north of Greenland and the Arctic Archipelago. But then, crack by giant crack, it began to advance again. The thick ice splintered, giant cracks reaching up past the north pole. Until, finally, the great cracks crossed the Arctic, reaching the fast ice between Northeast Greenland and Svalbard.
This drama occurred with barely a peep from mainstream media sources. Climate Central accurately reported the news. Discover covered the event as well but blamed the break-up on a storm. Nothing could be further from the truth. High pressure has mostly dominated the region since the crack-up began. And, though relatively minor storms have traversed the region, none of them have compared to the major storm that rocked the Arctic this summer.
NSIDC notes that storms over Alaska drove strong off-shore winds that likely contributed to the event. But the current break-up is conspicuous in that the weather event — strong winds in the vicinity of coastal Alaska — hardly compares to the massive storm that rampaged through the sea ice this summer.
Instead, clear skies and brisk winds have dominated much of this region during most of the crack up.
So what is to blame for this unprecedentedly large and early event? Most likely it is happening due to the fact that sea ice is much thinner and more fragile than ever before. It rests over an Arctic Ocean that is warmer than ever. And it lies in a region currently feeling the brunt of forces unleashed by human-caused climate change. Spiking CO2 and Arctic methane levels trap more heat. And, as a result, Arctic air and water are much, much warmer.
Further, the thinner, rotten ice is saltier, making it more brittle.
All these conditions favor cracking. And we have certainly seen it in past winters. But this year, 2013, is showing a crack-up that is likely unprecedented to any year in modern memory. The ice is faster and more broken. And, with each passing day, more and more large sections break up.
Reports from the Arctic show a growing number of the peoples of Northern Canada no longer traverse the winter ice to hunt or fish. By 2011, large sections of ice had become too unreliable. One hopes that no poor soul is out there now, trying to navigate a swiftly moving and fracturing sheet of rotten sea ice.
No one knows exactly what summer will bring. Another year of record low ice. A first year of no summer ice. Or a pause in what has seemed an ominous and powerful melt trend. But, with each passing day, as the cracks grow, the first two possibilities seem ever more likely.
More vivid visual of cracks crossing the entire Arctic. Image source: A-Team.