New research spells new problems for the future of ice in the Arctic, where in a region referred to as the Arctic’s “Last Ice Area” a hole covering an area roughly the size of Rhode Island opened in 2020.
In May 2020, a 3,000 square kilometer polynya was observed north of Ellesmere Island for the first time. The rift formed in the Last Ice Area, expected to be the last bastion of sea ice in the warming Arctic. Photo: NASA
It is a sign that global heating is closer than scientists thought to destroying some of the most ecologically critical regions in the Arctic.
That area of open water within the ice, also known as a polynya, covering a region of 1,160 square miles, appeared north of Canada’s Ellesmere Island, appeared in May 2020 but was not fully understood in its implications until now.
This hole is located within what is known as the Arctic Ocean’s “Last Ice Area.” That region, so named because the ice has – at over 4 meters (13 feet 1 inches) thick on average – the thickest ice in the Arctic. It is also the oldest, with an average age of 5 years.
The “Last Ice Area,” or LIA, extends across the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, a group of islands north of the Canadian mainland, on an arc which extends eastward to north of Greenland. It was given this name because it has maintained this thick layer of ice, increasing and decreasing during the seasons but still stable, during the study’s observation period spanning the years from 1979 to 2019.
In Canada, this region is considered so important for preservation of ice-specific species that the country recently designated the Tuvaijuittuq, Inuktitut, as the ‘the place where the ice never melts’ Marine Protected Area north of Ellesmere Island. The focus on this region will help preserve what is left of this important habitat.
As the scientists noted after discovering the giant polynya was discovered last year, the evidence is that the LIA is far from stable now. Data revealed that in the area just north of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago the LIA is losing total ice twice that of the average throughout the normally frozen basin Further, an increasing number of polynyas, the ice holes, had been detected in the area during the last twenty years, but none so big as the current one.
The clue to finding the one which took form in May 2020 was following what are called “flaw leads.”
These “elongated regions of open water that develop along the interface between last fast and pack ice are common,” the study reports. Going back over 100 years, in 1909 Robert Peary’s Arctic expedition, led by dog-pulled sleds, was famously delayed by a flaw lead which appeared just north of Ellesmere Island, the same area where the current polynya formed.
That is the difference between then and now, though.
“North of Ellesmere Island it’s hard to move the ice around or melt it just because it’s thick, and there’s quite a bit of it,” said Kent Moore, the study’s lead author and an Arctic researcher at the University of Toronto-Mississauga.
“So, we generally haven’t seen polynyas form in this region before,” he continued.
What has happened to this region is that a combination of higher temperatures in general, longer periods of warmth, and the presence of stronger winds which can contribute to movement and crunching of the ice. Polynyas, which begin as cracks in the ice, are forming more often than in the past, generally with the wind pushing already brittle ice edges apart.
What happened with the just discovered polynya is that a strong spring storm appeared just north of Ellesmere Island in early May 2020. On May 14, the winds from that storm had caused enough pressure on the ice to form a “lead” crack, long and narrow, on the ice’s surface. By one day later, the lead had transitioned to an elliptical open water hole 100 kilometers (62 miles) long by 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) wide.
On May 26 the polynya closed, but the structural damage caused by its formation stayed.
In the short term, as polynyas like this form, light from the sun is able to reach the now open water space below. That triggers a burst of algal photosynthesis, which then draws crustaceans and fish. For that time seabirds, seals, and other larger mammals such as polar bears are drawn to what amounts to them all as a climate crisis induced “fishing hole.”
But soon after that hole has been emptied and the long-term damage caused by the formation of the polynya begins to set in.
"[O]ver the long term, as ice melts and moves offshore and species like walruses and seabirds lose access to it, we lose that benefit," study lead author Moore said about the phenomenon. "And eventually, it gets so warm that species can't survive."
Eventually, the polynya will grow, the ice around it will collapse, and large-scale melting will occur. That this polynya exists at all is a bad portent of the future of ice in this region once given a name for “where the ice never melts.”
The study outlining the discovery and implications of this polynya, “First Observations of a Transient Polynya in the Last Ice Area North of Ellesmere Island,” was published on August 18, 2021, in Geophysical Research Letters.