North Pole Not Underwater, But Arctic Ice Still Melting

First Posted: Jul 31, 2013 08:20 AM EDT

It may look like the North Pole is underwater, but apparently that's normal--really. Scientists are speaking out about the picture that sparked a media frenzy over the past few weeks, revealing that in this case, a picture isn't necessarily worth a thousand words.

As our climate warms, ice from glaciers and ice sheets is melting and in some regions, it's happening more quickly than in others. That's why when an image surfaced that seemingly revealed a North Pole that was underwater, a veritable storm of controversy emerged. The picture appeared on media outlets across the country and the world as the public stared at an image that featured a buoy seemingly placed in the middle of a vast sea.

This image, though, is a bit misleading. The water was only about two feet deep and, despite appearances, only a few hundred yards wide. That's actually not unusual to find on an Arctic ice floe in late July.

"Every summer when the sun melts the surface the water has to go someplace, so it accumulates in these ponds," said Jamie Morison, a polar scientist at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory, in a news release. "This doesn't look particularly extreme.

So why does the image make it look like there's an ocean sitting on top of the North Pole? It turns out it's due to the camera that was used. The instrument used a fisheye lens, which changed the picture slightly.

"The picture is slightly distorted," said Axel Schweiger, who heads the Applied Physics Laboratory's Polar Science Center, in a news release. "In the background you see what looks like mountains, and that's where the scale problem comes in--those are actually ridges where the ice was pushed together."

In fact, the pool of water drained late July 27, leaving bare ice behind. This behavior is typical for a meltwater pond that forms from snow and ice. Although water can accumulate, it will eventually drain away through cracks or holes in the ice where it has pooled.

Despite the fact that this picture was misleading, though, it doesn't mean that melting ice isn't an issue. There is a lot of meltwater that could affect sea ice in the coming weeks, especially as the looked-for September ice minimum approaches. Last summer the sea ice hit a record low in extent since measurements first began in 1979.

"I think it's going to be pretty close to last year," said Morison. "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."

Although the hype about Santa's swimming pool was off the mark, we could still be in for some major melting come September. Scientists are continuing to monitor the area as temperatures heat up.

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