Thu, Jun 13, 2019 - Page 9 News List

The end of the Arctic as we know it

Arctic ice collapse is happening faster than climate computer models have predicted, and less oxygen and ice, more acid and heat will mean major changes not just for the local ecosystem or the oceans and marine life, but for the entire planet

By Jonathan Watts  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

The demise of an entire ocean is almost too enormous to grasp, but as the expedition sails deeper into the Arctic Ocean, the colossal processes of breakdown are increasingly evident.

The first fragment of ice appears off the starboard bow a few miles before the 79th parallel in the Fram Strait, which lies between Greenland and the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.

The solitary floe is soon followed by another, then another, then clusters, then swarms, then entire fields of white crazy paving that stretch to the horizon.

From deck level it is a stunning sight, but from high above, drones and helicopters capture the bigger, more alarming picture: A slow-motion blast pattern of frozen shrapnel radiating from the high Arctic southwards through this strait, which is the interchange of 80 percent of the water between the ice cap and the world’s oceans.

This is where ice floes come to die, and the cemetery is filling faster each year, according to the leader of this scientific expedition, Till Wagner of the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW).

One of the objectives of the expedition is to investigate why the collapse of Arctic ice is happening faster than climate computer models predict and to understand what this augurs for the rest of the planet.

The melt is not simply a seasonal process. The natural thaw that starts with spring’s warm weather is being amplified by global heating of human origin.

The Arctic has heated up by 2°C above preindustrial levels, twice the global average. Some hotspots, including parts of the Fram Strait, have warmed by 4°C.

There are variations from year to year, but the trend is clear and accelerating. Sea ice is melting earlier in the spring and freezing later in the autumn.

Each summer it thins more and recedes further, leaving greater expanses of the ocean exposed to 24-hour sunlight.

This is driving back the frontiers of ice and fragmenting one of the planet’s most important climate regulators. It is also creating a series of feedbacks that are accelerating the Arctic melt. Several are only partially understood.

The team and crew set out on the Greenpeace ships Arctic Sunrise and Esperanza from Svalbard’s port at Longyearbyen last month, less than a month after the sea ice reached yet another record low.

At the start of the melt season, this is a fast-changing body of water.

The Greenpeace crew say high winds and strong currents have pushed the ice front southwards by 80km in the past four days.

The floes appear on the radar screen as a thickening swarm of yellow flies.

When the bands of ice cannot be evaded, they are nosed aside by the prow, scraping the hull as we pass. Occasionally, they are smashed through with a clanging jolt.

The combinations of shade and shape are endlessly varied: here an opal gorge, there an emerald grotto, some floes so perfectly rectangular they could have been cut with a guillotine, others as jagged as a Cornish coastline.

Many surfaces are topped with snowy peaks or crenellations; others look as flat as a tennis court.

Depending on the sea motion when it was formed, the ice can be frazilled into loose white ice crystals, pancaked into bluish layers, or dense, hard nilas so transparent that they appear to be black.

All the floes have one thing in common: They are steadily diminishing as they head south.

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