North of Greenland, in the far reaches of Earth’s frostier regions, the ocean is typically rock solid. It’s an area so cold it’s always a glittery landscape of ice, even through the lazy summer months.
Scientists are reporting that, for the second time this year, a region known casually as “the last ice area” has experienced a confluence of strong winds and temperature spikes, which together have been powerful enough to break the ice. It’s a phenomenon never recorded in the five decades satellite imagery has been collecting visuals of the area, reports The Guardian. NASA’s global satellite imagery recently captured the ice retreating away from the coast of Greenland, shifted by the wind as it has become more brittle and, thus, more mobile. Danish satellites also caught images of the phenomenon.
As a result, a section of the sea is now exposed an area that has typically always been covered. According to an Aug. 15 note published by the US-based National Snow and Ice Data Center, the Arctic sea ice now measures about 2.2 million sq miles (5.7 million sq km), about 610,000 sq miles (1.58 million sq km) below the 1981-2010 average.
The overarching concern is that this is another effect of the changing climate, with immediate consequences for local wildlife, including polar bears and arctic seals. Earlier this year, a video of a starving polar bear captured international attention and shed light on the reality that as sea ice becomes thinner and breaks apart, animals such as polar bears will be more likely to experience stressful conditions and higher mortality rates, according to one study published earlier this year in the journal Science. A 2015 study found that the polar bear population around the Beaufort Sea has declined by about 40% because of changes in sea ice. And in 2017, a study by the US Geological Survey found the bears are expending more energy walking across a “treadmill” of ice that’s now drifting because of warming sea temperatures.
For years, scientists have thought the ice off the north coast of Greenland would be the last on Earth to melt entirely, due to its thickness. But the rate at which it is breaking apart now may change some of those theories.