Last week, images of a scientific observation buoy near the North Pole that appeared to be floating in a large lake (where there should be ice) sparked a widespread frenzy online regarding the possible imminence of global warming disaster. Now, the lake has disappeared—and scientists have stated that the images, however panic-inducing they may appear, actually represent normal Arctic ice melt cycles.
“Every summer when the sun melts the surface, the water has to go someplace, so it accumulates in these ponds,” said Jamie Morison, principal oceanographer for the North Pole Environmental Observatory. “This doesn’t look particularly extreme.”
What appeared in the photograph to be a lake was, in fact, a melt pond approximately 2 feet deep and 55 yards wide. During the Arctic summer, with the sun shining 24 hours per day, such melt ponds are relatively common. Some meltwater drains through cracks in the ice into the ocean below, while some accumulates in ponds like the one in the image.
“That’s just part of summer ice conditions, and as far as we know it always has been,” Morison explained.
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The now-infamous ‘North Pole Lake’ drained late July 27 through cracks in the ice. The drainage was also part of the normal melt pond cycle.
Axel Schweiger, head of the laboratory that set up the buoys and cameras, suggested that the type of camera used to capture the image of the buoy may have been a factor in the widespread interpretations of the photograph. The camera’s fisheye lens created a slight distortion in the image, which made the low ridges of ice in the background look like mountains, and thus caused the pond to appear larger than it was.
However, Morison was quick to point out that although the image portrayed normal melt cycles, the Arctic ice is still quite fragile. The width of the ice this summer will nearly reach last year’s record of minimal Arctic ice. “I think it’s going to be pretty close to last year,” he said.
“Up in the Canada basin the ice looks like Swiss cheese, with lots of holes. Even though the ice extent is pretty good, our thinking is that if there’s a big storm event we’re going to see a rapid breakup of that ice and it’s going to disappear pretty quickly.”