Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Day on the Ice Brigade

My boss, the inimitable Mr. Snow, called me into his office. I took a seat in the big padded white chair he kept for visitors. “Rick, we have a situation,” Snow said. “Ice is going to be coming in faster than usual — faster than we’ve ever seen. I need you to melt it.”

“Well, I know how to melt ice,” I replied. “You just keep adding heat till it turns to liquid. How much ice are we talking about?”

“It’s going to be coming in at one, maybe two kilometers an hour — almost a walking pace,” Snow said, “and this is for the next few days and maybe for two or three weeks. The best thing is if you can keep up with it, melt it all as it comes in.”

“Two kilometers an hour!” I exclaimed. “Can I borrow the Gulf Stream?” If I was going to melt ice that fast, I was going to need the biggest influx of tropical water that the cryosphere had ever seen.

“Anything you need, as long as you can keep it melting,” Snow said. “People aren’t going to be happy at this time of year seeing a parade of ice stretching south toward, well, Iceland. In November, fine, but August? That wouldn’t be a pretty picture.”

“I know what you mean,” I said. I could easily picture the faces of the cruise ship passengers hoping to stop off at a beach in the north of Greenland only to be turned back by Arctic sea ice. “I hope this ice isn’t very strong or thick,” I said.

“No one has seen it up close, but no one is vouching for its quality, either,” Snow said. “This is the warmest year ever globally, you know,” he added. “The ice couldn’t be anything like what we used to see.”

“Well, okay, I think I can do it,” I said. I pictured myself walking toward the ice, the ice marching toward me in a sheet hundreds of kilometers wide, only to melt at my feet as it arrived. And this might continue for a week, and another week, and maybe another week after that. “Well, I’d better get started,” I said, leaping out of the chair and heading for the door.

“That’s the spirit!” Snow said. “Call me if you need anything.”


I soon found that Snow wasn’t exaggerating about the speed of the ice coming out of the High Arctic. It just keeps coming! But he was also right about the ice being some of the thinnest and weakest North Pole ice we had ever seen. I’ve personally seen ice that could sink a battleship, but this stuff — this ice gets one whiff of Atlantic water, really just one broken-off corner of the Gulf Stream, and it goes to pieces. I’m pleased to say that so far, the ice hasn’t even reached Svalbard, never mind Iceland.

This is a strange situation, everyone agrees about that. In the Arctic, the wind never blows in the same direction for as long as a week, and I keep looking at the long-range forecast and thinking it must be a mistake. But I also can’t help musing about what would happen if the wind kept blowing and the ice just kept coming. How long could the Atlantic water hold off the whole Arctic ice pack? Maybe a month, possibly two, surely not three. But after three months, there would be no ice pack left anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. In 90 or 100 days of this the North Pole would have thrown everything it had at us. In that doomsday scenario, if it took a few extra weeks of mopping up, I’m sure people would understand.