Arctic ice breaks up as polar bears stalk ship

Posted: 09/07/2011 in all marine news

Gerard Wynn –

Stepping onto an Arctic ice floe on Monday, an unusually mild, easterly breeze blew at the end of the annual summer melt. The footprints of two polar bears from the night before were disintegrating in a dusting of snow.

At nearly 81 degrees latitude, the air temperature was 2.5 degrees Celsius — normal for a winter’s day in Europe but rather mild for the high Arctic, even in late summer. The previous day had been 4 degrees colder.

The monochrome scene was calm after the rolling swell of the Fram Strait between the Norwegian island of Svalbard and Greenland. We were embedded in an ice pack stretching half the area of Brazil, across the North Pole.

The Greenpeace icebreaker Arctic Sunrise nearby shuddered occasionally, nudged by white slabs of ice the size of a small car park, which jostled among threads of open water.

The water temperature was below zero, the ship’s log read, and the air was filled by the hum of its generators. The ship’s mooring ropes were driven by two giant stakes into ice up to 10 metres thick.

This entire Arctic landscape is forecast to disappear within decades and replaced by open sea each summer, perhaps for the first time in 7,000 years or more. The dramatic retreat signals the scale of humankind’s impact on the climate, experts say.

On Wednesday, the shrinking sea ice was closing in on the 2007 record low area of 4.1 million square km, according to the U.S.-based National Snow and Ice Data Centre. The annual minimum was 7 million square km in the early 1970s.

Environmental group Greenpeace wanted to draw attention to changes in the high Arctic, and ferried Cambridge University researchers from Svalbard to measure the thickness of the ice. Experts say it has been thinning for decades, possibly hastening an entirely ice-free summer as soon as 2020.

The sea ice area is easily read from satellites overhead. Measuring thickness is more difficult, and the most direct approach is to drill a hole and poke a tape measure down.

While doing just that the researchers on Monday were confronted directly with the annual seasonal melt which ends around mid-September each year.

They raced to evacuate the floe when a 3-metre wide crack appeared suddenly, in under a minute. A combination of melting, the swell of the sea and wind broke the floe apart.

Full story…

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