DISAPPEARING ARCTIC: Does New Photo Offer Proof That The North Pole Has Completely Melted? (VIDEO)

Image @ ClimateCentral

Losing the North Pole may not be as simple as heat or melt or climate change. But there’s no denying the consequences of all those things combined. Image @ ClimateCentral

In one terrifying image, the predictions of climate change appear to have become a stunning fact: the North Pole has melted. Not just a little, but into a veritable lake.

Captured by the North Pole Environmental Observatory, a research group funded by the National Science Foundation that has been monitoring the changing status of the Arctic sea ice since 2000, the image above depicts what many believe is the nail in the coffin of global warming: the total melt of the North Pole. The story was somewhat frantically covered by a number of media sources, including the The Atlantic Wire, which made the point that the ice melt does happen every year, while others extrapolated on that point by asserting that “every day it gets worse.” That quote is attributable to Philip Bump at the Grist Mill, who made no bones, in an article last year, about the “ice volume death spiral”:

“The ice loss is a fascinating, terrifying marker of how global warming is advancing — and the ice loss can itself make warming worse. There are a ton of great resources to track what’s happening with Arctic ice levels. Call it iceporn, if you will. And consider this post your Penthouse.”

His article goes on to include a number of colorful and terrifying graphs, one of which points out when the Arctic will finally be ice-free: “August or September of some year before 2030.” A tad vague, given that we have 17 years between then and now, but still…

Despite the understandable panic, the site Climate Central takes a wider and, perhaps, less histrionic view of the visual implication of the by now much-shared photo above. The suggestion is that viewers put it into clearer and more accurate context, including the fact that it really isn’t the North Pole:

First, the cameras in question, which are attached to instruments that scientists have deposited on the sea ice at the start of each spring since 2002, may have “North Pole” in their name, but they are no longer located at the North Pole. In fact, as this map below shows, they have drifted well south of the North Pole, since they sit atop sea ice floes that move along with ocean currents. Currently, the waterlogged camera is near the prime meridian, at 85 degrees north latitude. [… ]

The second thing to keep in mind is that melting sea ice at or near the North Pole is actually not a rare event. Observations from the webcams dating back to 2002, and from satellite imagery and nuclear-powered submarines that have explored the ice cover since the Cold War era dating back several decades, show that sea ice around the North Pole has formed melt ponds, and even areas of open water, several times in the past.

Annotated map showing the location of the North Pole and the location of the buoys with the webcams. Credit: NSF's North Pole Environmental Observatory. Map @ Climate Central

Annotated map showing the location of the North Pole and the location of the buoys with the webcams. Credit: NSF’s North Pole Environmental Observatory. Map @ Climate Central

To which some would likely say, “so what??” The fact that it’s happened before does not exactly assuage concerns about the Pole’s ultimate ice-melt trajectory. But CC goes on to stress that what looks to be a deep, blue lake is actually melted ice floating atop a deeper, harder ice shelf just below, possible to walk on with hip boot waders, says Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colo.

The webcam depicting what seems like open water is most likely “just sitting in a big melt pond” that has formed on top of the sea ice cover, Serreze said. This melt pond started forming around July 10, and is likely close to its peak depth and extent. The occurrence of a melt pond at or near the North Pole is “just not that unusual,” Serreze said, and is even less rare at a more southern location such as where the camera is now.

“The whole Arctic sea ice cover does show melt during summer even at the North Pole,” he said, speaking of a typical melt season.

Certainly that is somewhat reassuring, but let’s address the fact that others seem to believe this year’s melt is worse than previous years, boding ill for the growing impact of climate change. Climate Central did hear from James Overland, a researcher at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who seemed to be in agreement that the melt was larger than usual, but cautioned that it could be a result of how ice “was configured earlier in the year.” Another researcher from NSIDC concurred:

Walt Meier, a research scientist at the NSIDC, said the lake’s apparently large size may be the result of snowfall totals this winter and other factors.”The pool seems rather larger than normal, but that could likely be simply due to factors other than the temperature: how much snow fell on the area over the winter (more winter snow = more melted snow), the topography of the ice (little hills and valleys in the ice causing the water to pool in certain regions), etc.,” Meier said in an email. [Source]

So it’s clear the ratio of melt is not as simple as heat. Global warming. Losing Santa’s house to climate change. But there is also no denying the more incremental ramifications of gradually increasing temperatures. Climate Central, in fact, reported in September of 2012 that the level of Arctic Sea Ice Shatters Record Low… and in a big way; the lowest since satellite observations began in 1979. And that, then, brings on a bevy of negative consequences for a number of animals, vegetables and minerals: we’ve all heard about the polar bears and seals; then there’s the regional natives, the jet stream, the reflective bounce of heat and light back into space (creating more heat), and so on. And the more ice melted makes it difficult for the ice shelf to come back to its previous thickness, even in the colder months; with the melt trajectory likely to continue in increasing amounts, we are, as Serreze alarmingly put it, “… now in uncharted territory.”

None of this would matter much if this year’s meltback were a one-shot anomaly, but that’s not likely. When open Arctic water re-freezes in winter, it tends to form a relatively thin layer of what’s called first-year ice — and first-year ice is much more prone to melting the following summer than the thicker, multi-year ice that once covered much of the Arctic Ocean. Even the multi-year ice, according to some reports, is slushier and less solid than normal, so it could melt more easily than normal as well.

This image compares the sea ice extent minimum on Sept. 16 (in white) to the average minimum during the past 30 years (yellow line). Click on the image for a larger version. Credit: NASA. Map  @ Climate Central

This image compares the sea ice extent minimum on Sept. 16 (in white) to the average minimum during the past 30 years (yellow line). Click on the image for a larger version. Credit: NASA. Map @ Climate Central

Which brings us back to the Arctic “lake,” clearly the result of “slushier” ice left behind last year. While it may not be as terrifying as it appears at first glance, its ‘just below the surface’ reality is not good news. Mark Serreze warns, while June’s melt was slow, July brought a rapid increase, due to hotter weather patterns. Whether or not that will translate into a another record-breaking melt by year’s end remains to be seen, but it’s not looking good:

“I would be extremely surprised if we were not” well below average come September, Serreze said, but the prospect of setting another record low “depends on the vagaries of the weather, and we just can’t predict that.”

The “vagaries of the weather” in a climate change environment with the experts confirming we’re in uncharted territory; that’s a tough scenario for any laymen to interpret. But while the bright, blue Arctic lake may not be as ominous as first glance suggests, it appears the inarguable impact of global warming as laid out by climate scientists… is.

The North Pole Environmental Observatory webcam captured images during the 2013 melt season. You’ll note the pond starts to appear at 1:25.

Here’s the video: