Saturday, October 31, 2009

Svalbard Breaks Loose

A funny thing happened in the Arctic Ocean this week. Svalbard, suddenly, is surrounded by water.

Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago, a little smaller than Scotland, located in the Arctic Ocean at 81° north latitude at its northernmost point. Normally, there is solid or near-solid ice from there to the North Pole — normally, but not this week.

Instead, according to the satellite map, the sea ice edge has moved a good 100 kilometers north of the north coast of Svalbard. This hardly ever happens and would be a notable event if it occurred in summer. It is even more remarkable that it is happening now, at the end of October, with the Arctic Ocean in darkness. To the east, there are areas of open water that extend farther north than this.

The Arctic Ocean refroze slower than usual this October, so much slower that the ice extent is now about equal to what it was in 2007, the year of the record low ice extent. Refreezing has not yet begun on the European side of the ocean nor along the Alaskan coast, partly because the land is not cooling as fast as it did in the fall in years past.

There are still four months of night to come, so it is a safe bet that these areas will freeze up. The slow pace of freezing, though, reflects a changing Arctic in which ice cannot be taken for granted in quite the way that it was before.