Frozen Beaufort Sea in the winter of 1950
The frozen Beaufort Sea
NOAA Photo Library

The grinding, crackling ice of the Arctic Ocean never stops moving, not even in the grip of polar winter.

As this ice “rides on the ocean, absorbing energy from the circumpolar weather systems,” it often buckles and ruptures like a series of cataclysmic earthquakes, according to a release from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

These “ice quakes” can rip open leads to expose the sea. Returning floes can collide with inexorable force, then splinter into ridges as tall as buildings. All this frigid violence may be regular life on a frozen sea. But what will happen now that the ice cap has been thinning and shrinking — setting minimum-extent records nearly every month since 2000?

“These continuous ice quakes result in open leads of water or mountainous ridges of broken, jumbled ice,” scientists say. “These deformations, in turn, may have an effect on the thickness and durability of the arctic ice pack in the face of climate change.”

Will ice quakes quicken Arctic warming by exposing the dark ocean to solar radiation? Or will the jumbled mass of ridge and ivotuk armor the sea against meltdown?

Over the next few weeks, researcher Jennifer Hutchings of the UAF International Arctic Research Center will lead a team of scientists at the U.S. Navy Beaufort Sea ice camp in an investigation of ice stress, ice movement, and the overall mass of sea ice.

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