Misbehaving

Misbehaving

It may not be possible to blame inanimate ice flows for their actions, but the ‘extreme ice features’ of the Beaufort Sea certainly haven’t been behaving as expected this season. As a result, I am writing to you from the comfort of my own bedroom instead of the PolarGrizz Bed and Breakfast in Sachs Harbour. While yet still cozy, the location (scroll out) is much more exciting.

A field season and the accompanying data collection was sacrificed due to safety concerns (fellow researchers were forced to spend an unexpected night on an ice floe less than a week before we were to embark north). However, we are still excited and learning much from the abnormal events currently playing out in the Western Canadian Arctic.

To start, last year’s sea ice minimum was the lowest extents ever recorded. Following (though perhaps not correlated) this March was the 5th lowest maximum extent of sea ice. Even if it is not possible to say a low maximum extent reached in February/March will cause a low minimum extent in September, it is shown that both (minimum and maximum sea ice extents) are experiencing decreasing trends. Along with that are the decreasing amounts of multi-year sea ice, which is what my colleagues from the University of Manitoba were setting out to measure, instrument and remotely monitor during the floes drift in the Beaufort Sea.

The low maximum extent and decreased multi-year ice amounts were not the sole causes of our field operations being cancelled. A perfect alignment of events including early (2 months) ice break-up from the west and heavy winds from the east created the conditions necessary to push the existing ice floes out of reach from our planned field base in Sachs Harbour. This video of time-lapsed satellite imagery caused a few uneasy turns of the stomach as it circulated the internet. A map for scale and location may be helpful to understand the magnitude of the break-up over the 2 months.

The field work and subsequent analysis we were to undertake on extreme ice features (ice islands and multi-year ice floes) is conducted as part of the Beaufort Regional Environmental Assessment. The Beaufort and Chukchi seas are hot spots for present and future offshore development. It is troubling to think that the conditions outlined above may cause the offshore activity to speed up, as it could be mistaken that ice hazards no longer exist in the vicinity. This is not the case, as Shell learned last September during the record low sea ice extents of 2012. Shell shut down Arctic operations prematurely due to multiple equipment and environmental issues. If anything, the unpredictable nature of Arctic weather and ice conditions should spur a precautionary approach when planning increases of resource extraction or ship traffic in the isolated and severe region.

The Arctic is under public, private sector and government eye at the moment. I hope that the changes occurring to this beautiful environment are taken seriously by all three parties. If there is one link to watch the full way through it is this short video, which is spot on in the explanation of the ironic cause and effect loop, between human actions and the Arctic’s transformation.

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