Scientists watch Arctic cyclone churn through northern sea ice

Geekquinox

Scientists' eyes have been glued to the Arctic this past week, as a summer cyclone has been tearing through the sea ice at the north pole.

Ice melting at the North Pole during the summer months isn't exactly a rare occurrence, but what's remarkable is the speed and extend of the recent loss, and what this could mean for the trend that scientists have been seeing in the past decade.

Sea ice in the Arctic goes through a cycle, usually reaching its maximum extent sometime in March and reaching its minimum extend sometime in September. Over the past few decades, scientists have been observing an alarming trend, where the extent of the ice in the Arctic, both the maximum and the minimum, is getting smaller. Last year was particularly disturbing, as it reached a minimum extent in September of 3.413 million square kilometres, which set a record low that blew away any other year we've seen so far.

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In fact, going back 30 years, between 1981 and 2010 (which is how the National Snow and Ice Data Center set the newest 'average extent' they're using), 13 of the first 15 years of that period were all above the average, and 10 of the last 15 years of the period were below the average. So, the downward trend is clear.

Since 2010, the two years after that have followed the same trend, pushing things even lower, as this video compiled from data gathered by the European Space Agency's Cryosat satellite shows:

Currently, we seem to be tracking along with what the ice extent looked like in 2009, but even though that year saw only the sixth-lowest extent (5.129 million square kilometres), there's a big difference between 2009 and this year, and it has to do with how old and thick the ice is.

Because of the extreme amount of ice that melted last year (and indeed has been melting in the years before), any ice that 'recovered' over this past winter is young and extremely thin. The older ice is, the thicker and more resistant it is to melting, but young ice melts very quickly. Arctic Sea ice has been getting so thin in recent years, that scientists have had to come up with new terminology for it.

"We have a whole new class of sea ice in the Arctic, which we're calling 'decayed ice,"' said David Barber, an Arctic scientist at the University of Manitoba, who is one of Canada's top experts on sea ice, according to CTV News. "We started seeing it in 2009. It's extremely weak."

With this current cyclone still centred to the west of Ellesmere Island, the loss of sea ice from just this storm could be significant. Last year, there was a summer cyclone in August that caused a similar rapid loss of sea ice in the Arctic:

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The ice that was there during the melt in 2009, and even the ice that was there last year, had a bit of an advantage, though, being slightly thicker. This year is very different, though, and this storm and ones to come after will decide if we set a new record low for sea ice this year.

"The effects of [this storm] are nowhere near what we saw last August," said Matthew Asplin, a sea-ice climatologist with the University of Manitoba, according to CTV News. "But because the ice is thinner and it's already been pre-conditioned, and because there's less volume, it's much more vulnerable to impacts from this sort of thing."

"This year has been very stormy," Asplin added. "The month of August is definitely one to watch in the Arctic."

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