I was hesitating whether I should write about this (besides my personal combination of busy/lazy) for a couple of days, because the Arctic is such an amazing place that it's easy to get carried away. When you see something for the first time, it's tempting to go: "Oh my Gawd, that haz got to be the first time!" That happens to me a lot, especially during winter. It's only logical as we are seeing a lot of things for the first time, or for the first time since a very long time. But there still remains a very fine line between 'unique' and 'unusual, but not unique'. A line that can sometimes be difficult to tread.
For instance last year at the start of February I wrote about the spectacular lack of ice in the Kara and Barentsz Seas, notably around Novaya Zemlya. I had a hunch that this was pretty much unprecedented during the satellite era and said as much in a guest post for Climate Progress. I was mildly criticized for it by the NSIDC's Walt Meier via Climate Central (and I will never forgive him for it ;-) ). Now the hunch turned out to be reasonably correct - although there had been a similar retreat of ice at a later date in 2011, caused by wind patterns - but I didn't invest the time to make sure it was.
This year things are calm in the Kara and Barentsz Seas. At the surface that is, with not even a breeze towards the coast to show how strong or weak the ice is. But as usual, when it's calm on one side of the Arctic, something is going on on the other side. Some commenters have been keeping a sharp eye on this, and I think it now merits a blog post of its own, if only because of the possible implications this event might have for the ice pack once the melting season gets underway. And it's big time spectacular.
Last week, on February 22nd commenter A-Team - who has really been animating the blog lately, figuratively and literally speaking - made the animation you see on top of the post, showing massive cracking in the Beaufort Sea. In the following days fellow commenter Jim Hunt picked up on that and wrote a blog post on his Econnexus blog called Arctic Sea Ice is Cracking Under the Strain with a spectacular image of the ice pack in the Beaufort Sea on February 27th.
Meanwhile over on the Arctic Sea Ice Forum commenter BornFromTheVoid remarked that a similar thing occured last year in April. A-Team was quick to turn that event into an animation (that I had to edit a bit to cut down on size):
According to A-Team: "If taken as a simplistic predictor of the 2013 melt season, we are 51 days ahead of last season."
Chris Reynolds weighed in: "I've done some digging around regards this long fracture/lead in Beaufort. Nothing as big has occurred since 1999 in QuikScat or Ascat, the weather doesn't seem that abnormal, so I think it's probably mainly due to abnormally thin sea ice." Also see his blog post with further analysis.
That's the story so far. What we have here, definitely isn't a failure to communicate. I take my hat and wig off to all the commenters and bloggers who pulled this info together, as much in real-time as the satellites will allow.
This event is caused by two things. First of all there's a very big high-pressure system that is causing the Beaufort Gyre to start making its usual clockwise turn. It popped up about 10 days ago and has been pretty stable since then:
According to the ECMWF weather forecast model this high is going to remain pretty intense in the coming week at the least, with sea level pressures of up to 1055 hPa, so we can expect further cracking and transport of ice (some of it multi-year ice) towards Bering Strait. Which brings me to the second reason behind this event, already mentioned by Chris Reynolds: the ice is weak, it's thin. How do we know it's thin? Because of last year.
Last year I thought that the ice in the Beaufort Sea had thickened up a bit because of low temperatures throughout most of winter (while all the action was in the Kara-Barentsz region) and that it would probably withstand the onslaught of sun and wind better than the Atlantic sector of the Arctic. To my surprise, and that of Walt Meier among others, the ice in the Beaufort Sea was decimated at great speed.
The fact that the ice lets itself be pulled so willingly into the Beaufort Gyre so early in the year, with the start of the melting season still some 4 weeks off, is a sure sign that it's thin. This, of course, is a very bad prelude to the melting season, even if there are a couple of weeks left for the ice to thicken. Those huge cracks will freeze over, but the ice will be very brittle and the first to go, probably creating open spaces between multi-year ice floes where the Sun will shine and quickly heat things up. Unless the cloud cavalry comes to the rescue. Like A-team says: "Beginning of the end, end of the beginning, or just a bad hair day for the ice pack -- we'll have to wait and see."
The one good thing about that big high pressure system is that it makes for clear skies, which means very cold conditions at the surface. As blogger Diablobanquisa reported earlier today: -51ºC today at Eureka, Ellesmere island (link). Maybe the ice in the central Arctic and Canadian Archipelago can thicken up some more. It is also pushing ice towards the Atlantic where up till now there has been a lot of open water. This could very well cause another relatively late and high sea ice maximum, which will no doubt be used as disinformation in some quarters.
This image shows how the core of the multi-year ice, just north of the Canadian Archipelago, which should be the thickest sea ice in the Arctic, is not cracking just yet (image again courtesy of A-Team):
Discuss this event here or over at the Forum. I need a drink...