The Collapse of Arctic Sea Ice: Will Beaufort Break-up and Melt Proceed a Month or More Ahead of Schedule?

The scientists are worried. The Arctic is responding to human-caused climate change much faster than expected. As little as a year ago, scientists weren’t predicting an ice free summer Arctic Ocean until around 2060 to 2080. Then the 2012 melt season erased all hope that melt would proceed at such a gradual pace.

Now, most scientists predict that summers will see an ice-free Arctic Ocean by 2030. Unfortunately even this, much earlier, date may be too conservative for the Arctic sea ice, which appears to currently be shattering under a death blow of global proportion. And it is, for this reason, why we should seriously listen to one scientist who has spent much of his career listening to the sea ice.

Peter Wadhams, a polar researcher for most of his life, spent more than 40,000 hours on naval submarines, taking an intimate account of sea ice health and thickness. And Dr. Wadhams doesn’t think the summer sea ice has much longer to live. He predicts an ice-free or near ice free state for the Arctic Ocean come 2015 or 2016. In a recent interview to The Guardian, Wadhams stated:

This collapse I predicted would occur in 2015-16 at which time the summer Arctic (August to September) would become ice-free. The final collapse towards that state is now happening and will probably be complete by those dates.

Wadhams’ prediction comes very close to fitting the current trend of sea ice volume losses which will result, if trends continue, in an ice free Arctic come summer by 2017. However, as noted in a previous analysis here, any single melt year comparable to 2007 or 2011 would be enough to take down all or most of the remaining sea ice in just one year.

So the critical question is this: is such an event occurring now? Are we experiencing the final collapse that Wadhams mentions? If so, how would we know? Given that we have no precedent for what is happening to the sea ice, it is far more difficult to predict what may happen than, say, in a weather forecast. Regardless, there may well be a number of clues that are showing us a very big melt season and, with it, the last days of Arctic sea ice is well on the way.

Enter the Beaufort sea ice. The Beaufort sea contains ice that protects the rear of the remaining thick ice. Beaufort ice acts as both wall and insulator to the dwindling last bastion of multi-year ice now huddled protectively next to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Should that protection disappear too rapidly or too early, much of that remaining ice may not be able to make it through the Arctic summer.

Unfortunately, Beaufort sea ice underwent a major cracking event from February to March. Such events usually don’t occur until April or May. But this year’s cracking event came 40-50 days sooner. It also came with a vengeance. The cracks, usually contained within the Beaufort Sea, spread to cover much of the Arctic, invading even the remaining thick, multi-year ice. Not only did this cracking event rupture the thick ice, it also appears to have taken it off its anchor point.

This combined impact is likely to leave the multi-year ice both more fragmented and mobile come summer. And it could spell disaster for the remaining sea ice.

How will we know if this sea ice doomsday scenario is proceeding? One hint that it is occurring will be seeing something like the below image progression appearing in the vicinity of Banks Island in early May:

ModisFinalBigIndexSmallBB2_zps8f64a49d

(Image source: Ice Blog/A-Team)

What you are seeing in the above image is a break up of sea ice that occurred from March 30th to June 15th of 2012. This event bears striking similarities to this year’s February break-up. It contains the same network of ring fractures and it resulted in radically reduced resilience of Beaufort sea ice come mid-summer. The difference is that last year’s break-up began about 45 days later and was much smaller. It did not include the thick sea ice, nor did it pull that ice from its anchor points. This year’s break-up did both.

For comparison to this image sequence here is a picture of the sea ice in the same region today:

beaufort05Apr13_zps1df4b93c

(Image source: MODIS)

The state of sea ice in the same region now roughly corresponds to the state of sea ice in the same region during early May of last year. Arctic Ice Blog commenter A-Team notes:

Comparing 2012 visible imagery to 2013 infrared is somewhat problematic but the best match to today’s date 05 Apr 13 is approximately 10 May 12, or 35 days later. The southern coastline in the vicinity of Banks Island provides the best diagnostic region.

Recall 2012 was a record melt year with a very similar arc fracturing pattern developing in the Beaufort. However this developed much later in the spring and did not extend past the Prince Patrick Island leverage point.

In summary, the rapid acceleration of Beaufort Gyre rotation in early June 2012 and the breakup of icepack into floes can be expected in early May for 2013. This will contribute to a vastly more extensive melt-out expected in late summer 2013.

So what is setting up to happen next, should this worst case estimate proceed, is that the Beaufort Gyre will rapidly accelerate come early May, resulting in a disintegration of sea ice similar to what is seen in the above picture, but about 30-40 days ahead of schedule. The Gyre is a surface current that circles the Beaufort Sea. Ice on the water tends to retard the flow of this current. But as the ice becomes less solid, the Gyre speeds up, aiding in the breaking and mixing of sea ice with warmer waters. This process, as seen in the image sequences above, can lead to a rapid collapse and melt-out of sea ice.

If such an event does occur at such an early date, it will be one more indication that summer 2013 melt is proceeding at a much faster and more dangerous pace than even 2012. The early break-up was a strong indication that melt may be much worse for this year. If an early melt and speed up of the Beaufort Gyre occurs in this region, it will be one more sign that the summer of 2013 could be one in which further dramatic and dangerous melt occurs. One which may spell out the last days of Arctic sea ice.

Links:

The Arctic Ice Blog

Total Meltdown Warning

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