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The north pole is melting – or is it?

Update: Around July 28, 2013, the source of the photo below, The North Pole Environmental Observatory, put out a statement regarding the ‘melting at the north pole.’ They too verify it wasn’t out of the norm and it wasn’t at the north pole. The article below was written on July 26, 2013 – before the NPOE put out their statement. It’s an important reminder to just question it!

Around July 25, 2013, a series of photos of a buoy in sea ice which gradually turns to water started to go viral on the internet via CBC. If you are like me, then your first reaction was:

“Oh wow! That looks grim!”

Melt pond at north pole

But my second reaction was:

“Since when has there been a buoy at the North Pole?”

You see, I’ve actually been to the Geographic North Pole (early August, mid 2000’s), and there was no buoy there then and as far as I knew, the only fixed marker up there was a Russian titanium seabed marker, placed there by the Russians in 2007 in an attempt to stake the North Pole as theirs, so that the UN would ratify their claim for all the ocean floor from the Russian coastline to the North Pole (there’s oil and gas under them thar ocean sediments you know…). I am sure people have in the past tried to put buoy’s at the North Pole, but the problem is there is no land at the North Pole – it is just a sheet of ice floating separated from the ocean floor by a column of water standing 4,200m high, or just over 2.5 miles. And that sheet of ice moves!

Having been on an icebreaker that spent 2-3 days breaking ice to the North Pole in August, mid-2000’s, I spent many many hours leaning over the bow of the icebreaker watching it break and force the ice apart, unless we were trying to get through a ridge where a couple of ice floes had bumped up against eachother (and the ship tended to avoid those areas), the sea ice was rarely more than 3-5ft thick.

Initially, as a response to this article, I also dug up my photographs of the North Pole… I remember it being bitterly cold… the celebratory BBQ was almost a dead loss because I kid you not, as soon as those sausages were removed from the bbq, they were cold and by the time you got them onto your plate, they were starting to freeze! Now keep in mind we didn’t actually stop over the North Pole (we shifted over it a couple of times according to the ship’s GPS) and actually backed up a couple of kilometers for the photos below, but I was quite surprised to see that there were little lakes of meltwater when I was there as well – nothing you couldn’t walk around though!

Celebrating being at north pole

So I began rummaging around to find out more about this buoy that was supposedly at the North Pole. As a starting place for this digging, I assumed they meant the Geographic North Pole – since the Magnetic North Pole is currently sitting (coincidentally as you will see) approximately 450km south of the Geographic North Pole, but between Canada and Greenland (watch this interesting video for more information on what is the North Pole).

A good place to start was the North Pole Environmental Observatory, the source of the photograph named in the article. Well, the first thing that jumped out at me was they certainly aren’t hiding the location of their buoy’s! It was quite clear that as of July 25, 2013, the same day as the article by the CBC, that their northern most buoy was located at 85.996 degrees north, 4.684 degrees west and the temperature at the buoy was 0.2oC. Oh wow… the temperature there was above freezing – barely.

I then had a look at their map with buoy locations DriftMapJuly 25 2013 – had they somehow managed to fix their buoy to one spot on the arctic sea ice? This map showed that although their buoy’s had been located close (but not at) the North Pole, they had certainly drifted quite a way southward. Indeed, their northernmost one was at some point between Greenland and Spitsbergen. Well, now I was intrigued as to how far from the north pole had their northernmost buoy actually drifted? So I toddled off to Google Earth and plugged in the co-ordinates, and discovered that buoy was actually approximately 426 km to the south! That is hardly the North Pole as claimed by the CBC news article! That is hard to put into relation, but 425km is quite a distance when you are in those climes. The electric green hillsides of Iceland are separated from the Greenland ice sheet by approximately 300km, so ocean and land can have a huge impact on the local climate up there.

Distance to buoy

I then tried to find out what the temperature actually was at the North Pole in late July, but it turns out, there is no buoy up there so there was no way to get a real time reading. Maybe a tour ship or an expedition party was up there and could provide us with the answer, but there was no immediate scientific party registering the temperature at the North Pole. In fact, the closest buoy to the North Pole appeared to be buoy 90057 which was located at 87.316oN, 88.725oW. That is a lot closer but I couldn’t find the temperature for that buoy.

So the next thing was to try and find the location of Webcam #2, UPMC’s Atmospheric Buoy, which appeared to be the source of those damning images of the ‘North Pole’ turned into a lake. That proved oddly difficult! In fact, the best I could do was find an article by The Atlantic who had got an emailed response from one of the scientists at the North Pole Environmental Observatory which indicated that it wasn’t as bad as it appeared as the other webcam showed an image of the arctic sea ice still locked in ice. And the clue that the image was at least of one of their buoy’s, which as noted above, do appear to all be well south of the North Pole. So, I couldn’t tell you if the webcam is located at their northernmost buoy or one of the one’s even further south.

As a final note, I looked up the National Snow and Ice Data Center website which informed us that of July 17, 2013, the sea ice extent “retreated fairly rapidly through the first two weeks of July as a high pressure cell moved into the central Arctic, bringing warmer temperatures over much of the Arctic Ocean. Ice extent remains below average on the Atlantic side of the Arctic, and is near average to locally above average in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and along much of the Eurasian coast.” (I PDF’d the webpage for future reference as it seemed unlikely this information would remain permanently on their website). I don’t know which of the buoy’s has the webcam attached to it, but if it’s their northernmost one, then it is in the area that has been subjected to warmer temperatures anyway.

So what can we take away from this? I’d say at best, the CBC is responsible for producing a pretty shoddy, sensationalistic article which will scare people into thinking that the North Pole itself is indeed melting. That is very misleading and doesn’t focus people on the real evidence of the diminishing ice coverage at the North Pole which could have an impact. Nor does it really qualify that there is always ice melt on the Arctic sea ice during the summer, particularly several 100km’s south of the North Pole when there is a weather system favouring warmer temperatures!

Does this mean the ice sheet is going to disappear tomorrow? No.

Does it mean it will eventually disappear? No – because we’ve only been scientifically measuring the effects of warming in the Arctic Ocean for about 30 years.

Does it mean we should be concerned? If it makes you look into the issues with the Arctic sea ice melting and the affects it may have on climate, then that is positive. But an isolated incident of ice melt on the Arctic sea ice is not in itself, cause for concern.

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