Polar Pool Not Extreme
July 31, 2013

Chill Out! Say Experts: Polar Pool Pics Aren’t As Bad As They Look

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Last week, pictures from the North Pole Experimental Observatory (NPEO) showed the North Pole seemingly covered by a sea of water, but according to a statement from the project's principal investigator, conditions in the Arctic are typical for this time of year and viewing the images is all a matter of perspective.

"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 University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory and principal investigator with the Polar Science Center since 2000.

"This doesn't look particularly extreme."

Project scientists also noted the observatory's camera has a fish-eye lens - altering the perspective and making the situation at the pole look worse than it actually is.

"The picture is slightly distorted," said Axel Schweiger, the head of UW's Polar Science Center. "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."

The polar team said the melt pond was approximately 2 feet deep and a hundred feet wide. Over the weekend, the pond drained through a crack in the ice, which, the researchers say, is also a completely normal occurrence.

While reports of Santa's demise may have been premature, media coverage of the images did kick up dialogue about Arctic ice melt ahead of the upcoming September ice minimum, when ice cover at the North Pole reaches its lowest level before the boreal winter refreezes it.

Researchers at the National Science Foundation (NSF) track the rising and receding ice levels through the NPEO using a system of drifting buoys, like the one that was captured in last week's images. These buoys document a wide range of data and allow researchers to track ice drift based on their location. They also capture an image every six hours showing the ice, other buoys and measuring sticks placed in the ice to document melt.

In 2012, Arctic sea ice coverage hit an all-time low since records began in 1979. Schweiger said the ice melt began slightly later than normal, but then accelerated in the last couple of weeks at the same time heat waves gripped much of North America.

"Whether we're going to see another record or not is still up in the air," Schweiger said.

Morison initially predicted last year's record would not be broken, but images taken from a recent flyover of the North Pole have him reconsidering this prediction doubts.

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

The polar expert said he was actually inspired by the alarmed response to last week's images because it showed people are concerned.

"While the hoopla about Santa's swimming pool was off the mark, it is the long-term observational record from these buoys that provides the perspective needed to understand what really is going on," he said.