Global environmental challenges
Panic at 2 a.m. — the search for multiyear Arctic ice
When you’re looking for shrinking packs of multiyear ice in the Arctic Ocean, bizarre things tend to happen. Top Canadian scientist David Barber knows this first hand, as he explained in a presentation in Parliament on Wednesday. Barber said that to all extents and purposes the multiyear ice in the Arctic had already vanished, which could open up the region to shipping and mineral exploitation.
Barber, who holds Canada’s Research Chair in Arctic System Science at the University of Manitoba, boarded the icebreaker Amundsen last month and steamed north from the Arctic port of Tuktoyaktuk to look for the Beaufort Sea pack ice, the “thickest, hardest, meanest, multi year sea we have left in the northern hemisphere”.
According to up-to-date satellite maps provided by the Canadian Ice Service, the Amundsen should have started ploughing into progressively thicker ice almost from the start. Soon after the ship set sail Barber went to bed, and then woke up at 2 am in a panic.
“I looked on my screen and we’re doing 13 knots. We do 13.7 knots in open water and we’re right here (in an area where the maps show there should be thick ice) somewhere, doing 13 knots,” he said.
“And I just panicked, I thought ‘Oh My God, Stephane the captain is not on the bridge and the first officer has gone crazy, he’s driving this thing way too fast through the sea ice’. So I go up on the bridge and talk to the guys and they say “There is no ice here’.”
The ship sailed for hundreds of miles, first to the north and then eastwards, “trying to find multiyear sea ice that would even slow us down”. All they found was so-called rotten ice — a thin layer covering small chunks of multiyear ice.
Eventually the ship found a 10-mile floe of “nice typical traditional Beaufort Sea pack ice” close to the Canadian Arctic archipelago. As they were about to attach the ship to the floe Barber looked out and saw a crack open up right in front of him. “I went ‘Wow, that’s kind of weird’.” Even weirder, he and a colleague then saw the ice move up and down as a swell hit it.
“And as we watched, literally, without any exaggeration, the entire multi-year floe broke up in five minutes,” he said. Barber blames waves which started off the north coast of Siberia and then rolled across the Arctic Ocean, pushed along by a low pressure system and unencumbered by rotten ice.
No wonder he says that “I’ve never seen anything like this in my 30 years of working in the high Arctic”.
((Broken Arctic sea ice as seen from a window in from a U.S. Coast Guard C130 flight over the Arctic Ocean September 30, 2009. REUTERS/Yereth Rosen))