By Matt Owens August 7, 2013
Over the last 3 days, 2 out of 4 Arctic sea ice web cams have been approached and inspected by polar bears. One was even apparently broken off and knocked to the ground. You can find the web cams here.
As you can see in the image above from Sunday the 4th of August, this curious bear appears to be standing up and looking at the remote sensing equipment. He left without harming the camera. The other camera wasn't so lucky.
No polar bears were definitively identified, but tracks appeared on August 5, that look like the tracks from several polar bears, at the same time the camera was knocked out of its original alignment, and a smudge of something black was left on the lens, a tough feat in an ocean and ice environment. Then, about 24 hours later, the camera sent images showing it was lying on its side in a pile of crushed ice.
As the Arctic sea ice shrinks to smaller and smaller areas and becomes thinner, the polar bears and other animals, fish, and algae that live on, under, and even in the sea ice are being left up the proverbial creek without a paddle. For example, the ringed seal makes snow dens on the sea ice to rear its young (more information on seals and sea ice from the National Snow & Ice Data Center here).
Meanwhile, an ominous 1-2 punch of warm air and a churning cyclone are moving into the Arctic. If I wanted Earth's climate were a video game where I could control the weather, and I wanted to melt as much sea ice as possible this month, I would probably chose this exact weather pattern.
The warm air half of this combo punch will stick around, according to forecasts, for at least 10 days, covering the Canadian and Alaskan waters.
The cyclone itself could stick around in a decaying state until Monday, possibly even outlasting the Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012.
Air temperatures will be far below normal inside the cyclone, possibly even below freezing in some places. But it still may not be enough to save the sea ice. Because of the exceptionally large areas of open water in the middle of the ice pack, areas that stretch even to the North Pole itself, the high winds of the cyclone will generate high waves and lots more water circulation than usual. That circulation will bring up salty water from deeper levels of the sea.
Circulation is function of fetch (continuous open water length), wind speed, and duration of sustained wind. Also, Langmuir circulation may cause the sea ice fragments to collect in parallel lines in some places, leaving long lanes of open water where, if the cyclone sticks around long enough, wave height will increase substantially.
The wave dynamics in the Arctic with breaking up sea ice are complicated, but I would expect to see wave heights at least 1 meter (about 3 feet) in many areas over the coming days. The satellite images will tell us what's happened, and so will the buoy cameras, if the polar bears don't take them for a ride first.
Below: the latest NASA satellite image shows intensifying winds early this morning. The cyclone is about 1,100 km wide at the head of the tadpole, so to speak. Note that the colors were enhanced to make it easier to separate snow from clouds, as a consequence, the land is darker too.