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.
The UAF-led expedition — including lead researchers Cathleen
Geiger and Chandra Kambhamettu of the University of Delaware and
Jacqueline Richter-Menge of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Cold
Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory — is part of the Sea Ice Experiment: Dynamic Nature of
the Arctic project. SEDNA, funded with a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation, is one of UAF’s International Polar Year investigations.
Driven by climate warming and partly understood natural cycles, the Arctic’s ice is already shrinking fast, setting minimum records nearly every month since the early 2000s. Some scientists predict the ice could disappear completely disappear during summer within a generation, disrupting the lives of Arctic people and threatening extinction for polar bears.
How do ice quakes and shifting floes fit in?
More detail from UAF’s Marmian Grimes:
Hutchings said the fieldwork will involve deploying buoys and other instruments to measure the movement and stress of the ice pack in the area around the field camp.
“We are going to use that information to validate the current generation of sea ice models,” Hutchings said. “We are trying to reduce the uncertainty of our prediction of arctic climate change.”
Ice deformation may have an effect on climate because open leads of water tend to add more heat and moisture to the atmosphere, which could reduce the overall amount of sea ice.
Conversely, if ice movement results in more ridges and thicker ice, the result could be a more durable arctic ice pack that is less vulnerable to seasonal melting.
The amount of sea ice is important to the overall understanding of climate change because it is thought to affect how much solar radiation, and hence heat, is reflected back into space. Sea ice is also thought to be an indicator of global temperature changes
IARC / Brenda Jones
Virtual Ice Camp, anyone? The expedition invites students from kindergarten through 12th grade to check in on its progress and make virtual visits to the ice camp. The National Science Foundation’s PolarTREC program — which links scientists with teachers — has sent Vermont high school teacher Robert Harris to the Beaufort Sea Ice Camp during the SEDNA project. He’s already filing dispatches on the SEDNA site.