Here’s why you should care about the Arctic’s oldest ice breaking

by Elton Gomes

The oldest and thickest sea ice in the Arctic has begun breaking up, thereby opening waters to the north of Greenland that generally remain frozen even in summer. Such a phenomenon has never been recorded before, but has already occurred twice in 2018 due to warm winds and a heatwave caused by climate change.

The disintegration of ice has caused significant concern among scientists. One meteorologist described the situation as “scary.” Others have said that the loss if ice could force scientists to revise their theories regarding which part of the Arctic will withstand warming.

Among the short-term consequences, this breaking of ice could pose a threat to the survival of Arctic seals and polar bears, scientists have said. Satellite imagery from NASA Worldview has shown the ice retreating back from the Northern coast of Greenland, blown aside by the wind somewhere around early August. This exposed a vast area of sea that was previously completely covered.

The region that has begun breaking is described as the “last holdout” of the Arctic’s sea ice. Scientists warn that its breakup could increase the rate of melting ice across the continent.

“The fact that it has become mobile shows it is thinner than it used to be and this last holdout of heavy ice is now becoming as mobile as any other part of the arctic,” said Professor Peter Wadhams, a leading sea ice scientist from Cambridge University, the Independent reported. Wadhams added, “In the past, most of the ice in the Arctic has been multi-year ice, but that has been shrinking and now nearly all the ice in the Arctic is first-year ice.”

Wadhams further said that it could have “serious” consequences for wildlife including polar bears. The full extent of the damage would only be known until next spring when the animals come out of hibernation.

The current openings have been largely attributed to wind, and they have occurred twice when the temperature spiked. In February, the temperature at the region’s Kap Morris Jesup weather station was generally below -20 degrees Celsius. However, earlier in 2018, the weather station noted 10 days that had above freezing and warm winds, which led to the breaking of the ice.

The Arctic region is warming twice as fast as compared to the remaining parts of the planet. In 2018, sea ice in the region is 880,000 square kilometres below the 1981-2010 average.

Professor Martin Siegert, codirector of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and Environment at Imperial College London, warned that the breakup of “really thick and strong” ice in the Arctic was particularly alarming. “This is not just breaking up of the annual stuff, but the multi-year ice, which is highly unusual,” he said, the Independent reported.

Sea ice experts can expect the ice to get back eventually. However, that process could be delayed by the forces unleashed by their separation. Moreover, the opening up of the gap could increase solar heating of the water column, thereby dividing it further apart. The breakup of old ice reveals that man-made warming could reinforce climate feedbacks that could render the earth into a “hothouse” state.

Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius