Every day of the year, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado, updates it’s satellite image of the Arctic sea ice extent.
Presently, we are on track for a historic low this year and it seems the question is not if we will see ice free summers in the Arctic, but more a matter of when.
And yet, the images at the NSIDC only tell half the story.
Right now, I’m on the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, and we are moored to an ice floe at 79 degrees N in the Fram Strait, the body of water between Greenland and Svalbard – also known as the place where sea ice goes to die. We’re here to learn more about the other half of the story and to tell you about what we find.
Outside my porthole, out on deck and on the sea ice, scientists from Cambridge University such as professor Peter Wadhams and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute are on a mission to learn more about a very special type of ice.
This ice is known by many names. It’s called ridged ice, deformed ice, multi-year ice or pressure ridges. In essence, it’s the thick old ice that does not melt completely in the summer and grows bigger and bigger over the years.
These massive ridges were the worst enemies of early North Pole explorers, they stopped Fridtjof Nansen from reaching the North Pole after he and Hjalmar Johansen set out on an epic journey with a dogsled and skis and left their ship the Fram sitting in the ice.
These once so common ice ridges are now hard to find, however.
And that’s the other half of the story: the thick bits contain half of the Arctic sea ice. The thinning of the sea ice is just as disturbing as the ever-decreasing extent of the ice.
The scientists are trying to construct a complete scan of an ice ridge – using an underwater robot and a 3D scanner on top of the ice floe at the same time. It is a difficult task, but an important one, given that in the past 30 years, 75% of the volume of the sea ice has disappeared.
Hanumath Singh, the Woods Hole scientist responsible for the operations involving the underwater robot, adds: “No one has really managed to simultaneously map pressure ridges from the top and the underside at high resolution in the Arctic.”
This is vital, however, if you want the full story, the full show. Scientists and the world must be able to see beneath the sea ice surface as well.
I say this because going to the Arctic has changed the way I view the polar region. The stunning beauty, the mystery and the ever-changing sea ice tells a story about the forces at work and of the fragility of the region. It takes lives and it gives life.
It’s vast and grand, rough and welcoming, and just the thought that humanity is on the verge of altering it forever is difficult to comprehend.
To save the Arctic we need people around the world to stand together. But we also need more knowledge. Hopefully, this expedition will give us some. There’s a depth to the ice. And hopefully, there is a depth to our perseverance.
We will save the Arctic.
Click here to read more about the scientists and 3D scanning experts on board the Arctic Sunrise