Late last month, numerous media outlets reported a terrifying new development: the North Pole had virtually melted into a giant lake at the top of the world. The matter has since been cleared up (more or less), and the publishers who initially panicked have backtracked a little. However, some scientists argue there are serious concerns to be mined from this otherwise false alarm.
Here’s the rundown: in 2000, the North Pole Environmental Observatory (a multinational cooperative between the U.S. and Japan) installed a high-resolution video camera to a large ice floe in the Arctic Ocean. Their goal was to monitor conditions related to sea ice and study the role this frigid material plays in global climate trends. However, just two years after the project commenced, researchers began to notice something strange: every summer, massive amounts of sea ice melt and form a frigid body of water.
The Huffington Post published a stop-motion slideshow created by the NPEO to illustrate this bizarre phenomenon, complete with dramatic images taken this summer that suggest the North Pole has dissolved into a swimming pool.
When these images surfaced on the web last week, they were accompanied by hysterical headlines and newsprint that seemed to herald a major turning point for our planet’s climate. However, just a few days later, a sensible explanation was issued: the images dated from this year were actually captured nearly 400 miles south of the North Pole, where (obviously) sea ice melt is much more pronounced. And on Aug. 1, Discovery News reported that the lake had, in fact, vanished; scientists later explained the water drained through cracks in the underlying ice.
So, crisis averted, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, because rumors of the North Pole’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. No, because scientists have still noted that temperatures at the North Pole (just like everywhere else) seem to be rising every year.
The NPEO says footage gathered in the last two years may indicate some especially problematic trends. Sea ice is measured by the length (in square miles or kilometers) it extends across the North Pole. Melting typically kicks off in April and continues until August or September, when the lowest extent is usually recorded; this is followed by a heavy freezing period, during which sea ice is restored to its fullest extent (roughly 16 million square kilometers). From 1981 to 2010, average summer temperatures reduces the sea ice to an area just less than 8 million square kilometers.
But in 2012, researchers were shocked to find that sea ice extent had plummeted to 4 million square kilometers by late August; by mid-September, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reported that the extent had been reduced to roughly 3.4 million square kilometers. “We have a planetary emergency,” NASA scientist James Hansen told The Huffington Post, “It’s hard for the public to realize, because they stick their head out the window and don’t see much going on.”
Scientists have noted some troubling trends this year, as well. According to NSIDC data, this year’s extent closely follows last year’s patterns. Furthermore, temperatures in 2013 have been roughly 1 to 3 degrees Celsius above average than in previous years.
However, not everyone is particularly concerned about these numbers, either — even if the melt ponds of the past two summers have seemed unusually large. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researcher James Overland told Climate Central that this year’s lake “is a product of how the ice was configured earlier in the year”, while NSIDC research scientist Walt Meier told the same website that “factors other than the temperature”, such as annual snowfall and ice topography, also play a significant role.
So, what’s the takeaway here? That everything is hunky dory in terms of our planet’s climate? Well, not quite — but we should be safe from global flooding for now. Axel Schweiger, head of the Applied Physics Laboratory’s Polar Science Center at the University of Washington, told Discovery News that more research is needed to determine whether or not current sea ice melt trends are linked to global warming.
“The formation of these ponds and their disappearance is part of a natural cycle,” Schweiger said. “It’s important to recognize that these ponds may be linked to global warming, but the questions are more: How many and how deep they are, and when they appear and when they drain… It’s a very open research question.”